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Arch Enemy / Spiritual Beggars

Reviewed on this page:
Spiritual Beggars - Black Earth - Stigmata - Burning Bridges - Ad Astra - Wages Of Sin - Anthems Of Rebellion - Doomsday Machine - Demons - Rise Of The Tyrant - Khaos Legions

A key part of the influential Swedish melodic death metal scene, Arch Enemy was formed in the mid-90s by guitarist/mastermind Michael Amott. Like compatriots In Flames, Arch Enemy uses intricate riffs and melodic sections to add variety to their brutal metal pummeling, without the folked-up experimentation of Opeth or the cheesy keyboards of Children Of Bodom. Amott cut his teeth in just-plain-death metal bands Carnage and Carcass, both of which focused on gore and grossout lyrics, and Arch Enemy started out with some horror film imagery ("Diva Satanica") but soon shifted to anti-authoritarian themes. Younger brother Christopher Amott is also a fine guitarist, enabling the group to construct some sophisticated dual lead passages and craft solos drawing on the full palette of metal and hard rock traditions. Angela Gossow (who replaced original singer Johan Liiva) is a dynamic frontwoman though her actual vocals are limited: she can grunt or growl with the best of them, but since she never sings clean - unlike the singers in Arch Enemy-inspired acts like All That Remains - it can get dull.

For some reason, European metal musicians seem to put a lot of energy into side projects, and both Michael and Christopher Amott have other bands, Spiritual Beggars and Armageddon respectively... I've reviewed some releases of the former, and listed those of the latter. I saw the band in concert in May 2008, so naturally I reviewed it. (DBW)

Carnage (formed 1988) - Michael Amott, guitar; Johann Liiva, vocals, bass; Jeppe Larsson, drums. In 1989, Liiva and Larsson left, replaced by Matti Kärki (vocals) Johnny Dordevic (bass) and Fred Estby (drums); David Blomqvist (guitarist) joined. Group disbanded in 1991.

Spiritual Beggars (formed 1992) - Michael Amott, guitar; Christian "Spice" Sjöstrand, vocals, bass; Ludwig Witt, drums. Per Wiberg, keyboards, joined 1998. Sjöstrand left 2002, replaced by Janne "JB" Christoffersson. At some point, Sharlee D'Angelo took over on bass.

Arch Enemy (formed 1996) - Michael Amott, guitar; Christopher Amott, guitar; Johan Liiva, vocals, bass; Daniel Erlandsson, drums. Martin Bengtsson joined on bass 1997. Bengtsson left 1999, replaced by Sharlee D'Angelo. Liiva left 2001, replaced by Angela Gossow. Christopher Amott took a temporary leave, 2005 to 2007, replaced by Fredrik Åkesson. Gossow switched from vocals to band management(!), replaced by Alissa White-Gluz.

Dark Recollections (Carnage: 1990)
Judging from the only track I've heard ("Infestation Of Evil"), Michael Amott and Liiva's first band was grinding death metal along the lines of Carcass. In fact, after this band split in 1991 Amott spent a few years playing guitar in Carcass. Three members of Carnage (David Blomqvist, Fred Estby and Matti Kärki) went on to form Dismember, which I haven't heard. (DBW)

Spiritual Beggars (Spiritual Beggars: 1994)
Amott's next move was putting together a retro-boogie rock band that sounds roughly like Blues Traveler with guitar solos instead of harmonica. (I'm supposed to call this genre "stoner metal" but I can't bring myself to do it.) The album opens by nicking the "Foxey Lady" riff ("Yearly Dying"), and it doesn't get much more original as it goes along, but somehow doesn't generate the fun of a true mullet-banging band (I'm looking at you, Foghat) either. There are a couple of satisfying licks ("If You Should Leave," recalling Mountain; "If This Is All"), the level of musicianship is high, and Amott appears to be having fun digging into his psychedelic solos ("Magnificent Obsession"). But overall there's just not enough going on. Amott has kept the band going over the years though it hasn't appeared to be a top priority. (DBW)

Black Earth (Arch Enemy: 1996)
Then Amott got his melodic death metal project off the ground, reuniting with Liiva and pulling in his brother Christopher and drummer Daniel Erlandsson, who had previously played with In Flames (his brother Adrian drummed for At The Gates and then Cradle Of Filth). The songs are less complex than Amott's Carcass work, with hardly any soft passages to grant respite from all the brutality ("Fields Of Desolation"). But he is a formidable riff machine ("Idolatress"; "Losing Faith"), and is already tossing in the brief instrumental fragments ("Demoniality"; "Time Capsule") which he would continue to feature throughout the band's output. Liiva played bass as well as singing lead on this debut; his growled vocals are nothing to write home about, sounding more like an out-of-breath sports fan yelling at the other team than a demonic spirit ("Dark Insanity"). (DBW)

Another Way To Shine (Spiritual Beggars: 1996)

Stigmata (Arch Enemy: 1997)
This time out, Amott's tunes aren't as stirring or individuated, often sounding vaguely familiar ("Sinister Mephisto"; "Bridge Of Destiny") - even the segues are dull ("Vox Stellarum"). As always, the band is proficient enough to capture whatever style they're attempting (the doom-laden intro to the otherwise ordinary "Let The Killing Begin"), they're just not aiming as high. But they do earn a "Houses Of The Holy" bonus point for using the previous album's title as a song title. Produced by Fredrik Nordström, though he doesn't have any discernable impact on the sound. Martin Bengtsson replaced Liiva on bass, and Peter Wildoer temporarily replaced Erlandsson. The Japanese and Korean releases contain three bonus tracks which were later collected on the Wages Of Sin bonus disc. (DBW)

Crossing The Rubicon (Armageddon: 1997)
Christopher soon started his own side project, backed by Wildoer and Bengtsson, with Jonas Nyrén on vocals. I'm curious about it but haven't found any of their discs at a reasonable price. (DBW)

Mantra III (Spiritual Beggars: 1998)
Keyboardist Per Wiberg came on board at this point. (DBW)

Burning Bridges (Arch Enemy: 1999)
Sharlee D'Angelo - formerly with Mercyful Fate - took over on bass, and Erlandsson returned. The compositions are more detailed, with more twin guitar interludes ("Pilgrim") and other goodies: "The Immortal" makes good use of arena rock tropes - a little of that Spiritual Beggars stuff is better than a lot - while "Demonic Science" has a bridge that's practically ska. At times, the different sections of tunes don't fit together coherently ("Silverwing"), but when it works, which is most of the time, it's phenomenal ("Angelclaw"). Wiberg and Nordström each contribute some keyboards (the spacey title track). (DBW)

Embrace The Mystery (Armageddon: 2000)

Ad Astra (Spiritual Beggars: 2000)
Largely the same bleary boogie as the group's debut ("Blessed," quoting "The Immigrant Song"), but it's a bit better all around. There are more tonal colors: slide on "On Dark Rivers"; harmonica on "Left Brain Ambassadors"; trippy backing vocals on "Angel Of Betrayal." A few tracks have a welcome epic flavor (the near-thrash "Sedated"; "Until The Morning") or at least a memorable crunching vamp ("Mantra"). If you're already an Amott fan and you're sure you want to check out the Beggars, start here. (DBW)

Burning Japan Live 1999 (Arch Enemy: 2000)
Documenting a 1999 tour of Japan, this ended up being the last Arch Enemy release to feature Liiva - unsurprisingly, he's the weak link here. The band sounds fantastic, crashing through the songs even more ferociously without sacrificing detail ("Diva Satanica"). The setlist is largely made up of Burning Bridges tunes ("Dead Inside"), but the reinvention of early material is more startling ("Dark Insanity"). The Amott brothers find time for some epic solos ("Silverwing") but that's easy to forgive as the rest of the show is so pithy. (DBW)

Wages Of Sin (Arch Enemy: 2001)
New vocalist Angela Gossow replaced original singer Johan Liiva, and I don't know if that energized the band but there does seem to be a new sense of purpose and fury - the first time I heard "Dead Bury Their Dead" I banged my head so hard I thought it would come off. Probably their best batch of tunes to date: The pace stays frenetic, apart from "Savage Messiah," which has an ominous opening and a "Master Of Puppets"-style interlude, and the instrumental "Snow Bound." "Burning Angel" is a wild rollercoaster ride, despite some similarities to Megadeth's "Hangar 18." Lyrically there's a shift away from Satanic themes to Christian ones ("The First Deadly Sin"), in what political commentators would call a "flip-flop." Wiberg plays a piano intro on "Enemy Within"; no guests otherwise. Some versions of the CD have a bonus disc with some covers (Iron Maiden's "Aces High") and extras ("Damnation's Way"), all featuring Liiva. (DBW)

On Fire (Spiritual Beggars: 2002)
JB Christoffersson replaced Spice Sjörstrand at this point. (DBW)

Three (Armageddon: 2002)

Anthems Of Rebellion (Arch Enemy: 2003)
Andy Sneap produced, and the songs are simpler this time out, with endlessly repeated vamps ("Instinct"). They don't become hypnotic, though, just boring ("Dead Eyes See No Future"). What's odder is, the tempos are slowed down a bit (apart from the thrilling thrasher "Despicable Heroes"), draining away the cathartic character at the heart of this type of metal. Fortunately, a few tracks do have memorable melody lines and an anthemic quality: "We Will Rise" (a single); "Exist To Exit"; and best of all, "Saints And Sinners." Some versions of the album include a bonus DVD with some live tracks. (DBW)

Doomsday Machine (Arch Enemy: 2005)
The group is still working with a limited palette, but their musicianship is very strong: both the sweeping epics ("Mechanic God Creation") and single-minded battering ("My Apocalypse") are based on memorable hooks and support inventive soloing. The instrumentals "Enter The Machine" and "Hybrids Of Steel" are less substantial, though. Bassist Sharlee D'Angelo - formerly with Mercyful Fate - and drummer Daniel Erlandsson are solid, but the band lives and (occasionally) dies on its compositions. Produced by Rickard Bengtsson and mixed by Sneap; guitarist Gus G. guests on "Taking Back My Soul." After recording this album, Christopher took a sabbatical from the band (replaced on tour by Fredrik Åkesson) but returned in time for the next studio album. (DBW)

Demons (Spiritual Beggars: 2005)
Who is digging this stuff? Christoffersson's bellowing is indistinguishable from Sjörstrand's, and the lyrics are still trivial commonplaces ("Salt In Your Wounds"). "One Man Army" has a drum and bass breakdown section that comes straight out of The Who's playbook, if that's your thing, and "Through The Halls" changes mood a few times though not one of the sections is satisfying. Two tunes have solid licks ("Elusive" and "In My Blood"); otherwise it's all very professional but totally uninvolving. The professionalism may be the problem, in fact: this kind of music is supposed to feel loose and spontaneous, and if you do it too precisely you haven't done it at all. (DBW)

Rise Of The Tyrant (Arch Enemy: 2007)
Produced by Michael Amott and Nordström, and they keep the sound uncompromising but clear, as the riffs range from anthemic grandeur ("In This Shallow Grave") to post-punk simplicity ("Blood On Your Hands") - sometimes within the same song. The individual licks are quite strong ("Night Falls Fast"), and the entire band (same lineup) sounds better, especially Erlandsson. At the same time, though, there are no surprises: fast sections give way to quieter verses ("Revolution Begins"), warp-speed arpeggios alternate with machine-gunned power chords, Gossow rages against this and that (title track). As a result, the individual tracks are thrilling but at album length that effect eventually wears off. The wah-wah-heavy instrumental "Intermezzo Liberté" is a breath of fresh air, and the album could have used a couple more of those. (DBW)

Tyrants Of The Rising Sun - Live In Japan (Arch Enemy: 2008)
A nearly flawless 2-CD set, capturing the raw fury but also the delicate tunefulness of an Arch Enemy show. The set list focuses on recent material ("Nemesis"; "Vultures") though they also touch on old favorites like "Fields Of Desolation" and "Dark Insanity." As changes of pace, Erlandsson and both Amotts have solo features, and the guitarists also stretch out on "Silverwing" and "The Day You Died." Adeptly rendered as it is, though, the songs are not significantly different from their studio cousins and thus there's no need to check this out unless you're already crazy about the band. Also available in a DVD/double CD configuration. (DBW)

The Root Of All Evil (2009)
Are they hinting that they put together this collection of remade Liiva-era tunes for the love of money? (DBW)

Khaos Legions (2011)
Arch Enemy is in the mature phase of its career by now, and so the positives as well as the negatives are entirely predictable: There will be a lot of rhythm-heavy verses transitioning into melodic choruses and pseudo-classical interludes, all played with impeccable musicianship (leadoff single "Yesterday Is Dead And Gone"; "Bloodstained Cross"). There will be a strangely high quotient of Biblical imagery ("Vengeance Is Mine") for a rigorously atheist ("We Are A Godless Entity," one of four brief instrumentals) act. And there will be some terrific crunching riffs ("Through The Eyes Of A Raven"; "Under Black Flags We March"; "Cult Of Chaos"). There won't be any variation in instrumentation (apart from some synth stabs on "Cruelty Without Beauty") or vocal approach, and at times the songs will sound like they all came off the same assembly line ("City Of The Dead"; "Secrets"). Which is just another way of saying this is one of those three-star releases that's solidly satisfying for band followers but won't convince any skeptics: I hoped for more, but I would've settled for less. (DBW)

War Eternal (2014)
Due in June; the first album with new vocalist Alissa White-Gluz. (DBW)

Slaves of yesterday?

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