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CD Review: ARCH ENEMY Khaos Legions

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When you're obligated (or just want) to listen to as much music as I do, it becomes difficult if not impossible to "memorize" a band's back catalog in the way that, for instance, I devoured Metallica's oeuvre nose-to-tail up through The Black Album… no lyric undigested, no riff unforeseen.  Since the mid-90s I've been consuming music at a pace that preempts the kind of repeat listening that allows for that to happen, so as a result, when I review a new album by a long standing band I feel obligated to go back and refresh my memory by listening to their entire back catalog, the better to sift out the evolutionary analysis that any good review requires.  This can be a time consuming, laborious process.  Thank God, then, for a band like Arch Enemy, whose stubborn lack of forward progression makes that kind of retrospective nitpicking superfluous.

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If that sounds like a knock on the quality of Arch Enemy's material, it's not; I also enjoyed AC/DC's last album – the first six or seven tracks anyway – but I hardly feel the need to go back to the Australian release of High Voltage and work my forward every time the band put out a new record (lest I overlook some crucial artistic tweak they've made in the interim).

What a hell of a way to start off a review, then, considering Khaos Legions actually DOES constitute a bit of a makeover.  It doesn't negate the uniformity of the previous material, mind you, and it won't send diehard fans screaming for the exits, but yes, the full on thrash of aeons past has been scaled back, in its place a refocusing of melody into something closely approximating power metal instead.  It's not the galloping, sing-song power metal of Gamma Ray, no, but whereas on previous albums Arch Enemy have often seemed stuck in a 90s rut, Khaos Legions finds them receding even further back into 80s trad metal while still retaining vestiges of (slower) 90s death metal.

Of course, when you have the kind of talent that a band like Arch Enemy possesses, trad/power metal is an area fertile for reinvention, and for about half an album the band fires off one expertly played, immaculately produced neo-classic after another.  It's only on the back nine that the album runs out of steam:  filler instrumentals start to pop up twice as often, tunes like "Thorns in My Flesh" have half as many ideas as earlier tracks like "Yesterday Is Dead and Gone", and it all gets even more bloated if you actually listen to the bonus tracks – all covers – in direct succession.

Furthermore, whereas Angela Gossow has wrongly been targeted in the past for lacking an appropriately guttural roar on their death metal material, this new direction actually opens her up for valid criticism, as the emphasis on melody definitely could have used a singer with more versatile chops.  Gossow makes no attempt at clean singing anywhere on the record, so the vocals seem pretty one dimensional paired with the multifaceted melodic structures.

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These are not fatal flaws, but they do prevent Khaos Legions from aspiring to the career peak/second wind the band no doubt intended it to be.  If anything, Gossow and co. might have improved the album immensely by taking advantage of the current trend for brevity and just trimming some of the fat.  Album closer "Secrets" would leave a much better impression if it didn't have momentum killers like "Thorns in My Flesh" and "Vengeance Is Mine" preceding it ("Vengeance" is not a bad track, but as the only song on the album that's a full on throwback to their death/thrash material it's woefully out of place here).

And so, even though it's not the masterpiece of reinvention it could have been, Khaos Legions is a bold step forward for a band that has until now seemed reluctant to toy with their sound too much.  The one change Arch Enemy need to make if they plan to continue in this direction is to mix up the singing a bit… ie. Gossow either needs to learn to sing in something other than a guttural howl or else someone in the band needs to step up and offer clean, melodic backing vocals.  The death metal vox don't kill this material, but they do beg for a little bit of additional texture.

7.5 / 10

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