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Album Review: UNLEASH THE ARCHERS Phantoma

7.5 Reviewer

Phantoma – the sixth LP from Canadian power metal troupe Unleash the Archers, and first with bassist Nick Miller – arrives with a couple of obstacles to overcome. Not only does it need to be a worthy successor to what are likely the group's most beloved records – 2017's Apex and 2020's Abyss – but it also needs to pacify listeners who're upset over their recent use of AI in the "Green & Glass" music video.

While only time will tell if they've succeeded with the latter situation, they've mostly achieved the former. That's not to say that Phantoma is on par with its two highly commendable predecessors – by comparison, it's at least a bit less fresh, invigorated, and alluring – but it's still quite likeable. Therefore, it's definitely a worthy addition to their catalog that should please fans of Unleash the Archers and power metal in general.

Somewhat ironically (given the aforementioned controversy), Phantoma is a concept album about AI. Specifically, and as noted in the press release, the storyline was conceived by Unleash the Archers frontwoman Brittney Slayes "before the swarm of pressing commentary surrounding AI and its impending grip on society began to reach an all-time high." Centered around protagonist Phantoma ("a Phase 4 / Network Tier 0 unit – model A"), the plot "recounts the trials of AI gaining sentience on a dystopian, near-future planet earth… [to provide] important social commentary about seeing the brutal truths behind the manufactured sheen of social media posturing."

Narratively, it's generally common territory for anyone familiar with Coheed & Cambria, Ayreon, and Janelle Monae's ArchAndroid saga (not to mention films such as I, Robot and Blade Runner). That said – and despite some cheesy on-the-nose lyricism on "Give It Up or Give It All" and elsewhere – it's compelling enough emotionally and philosophically to be worthy of investment and carry you through until the end.

Of course, Phantoma's storytelling is only as good as the music and singing that represent it, and on that front, Unleash the Archers triumph more often than not. After some atmospheric nature sounds, "Human Era" sets the stage with empowering guitar riffs and rhythms alongside robustly catchy hooks. It's standard stuff, for sure, but the band continues to do it well, with Slayes enduring as one of the best singers in the field. (The multilayered vocals – supported by guitarists Grant Truesdell and/or Andrew Kingsley – are especially inspiring and epic, allowing "Human Era" to fulfill its promise of kickstarting a weighty saga.)

A few other tunes ("Buried in Code," "Blood Empress," "Gods in Decay") are similarly light and poppy compared to the rest of the record. As with much of Unleash the Archers' prior work, however, Phantoma truly stands out when it doubles down on the "metal" side of their formula. In particular, both "Ghosts in the Mist" and "The Collective" offset their cleaner and softer cores with growls and ferocious instrumentation. Then, "Buried in Code" and "Green & Glass" are altogether feistier compositions before finale "Blood Empress" wraps it all up with appropriately heroic and affective grandeur.

Honestly, the biggest flaw of Phantoma is a gripe that could be made about a lot of power metal: too much of it sounds too similar. Yet, as with many of the genre's shining examples, deeper listening reveals enough nuances to give each track its own identity and purpose. In that way, Phantoma doesn't really push Unleash the Archers forward artistically as much as it cements why they're still an extremely reliable and praiseworthy part of the scene. With that in mind, it's easy to be enamored by its lore and performances.

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