Type: CD Company: Napalm Release: 2017 Genre: Power Reviewer: Frank Hill Published: 7/18/2017
Dark and powerful concept record on humanity and immortality
Unleash the Archer's prior release 'Time Stands Still' was a roundtrip journey veiled under various band metaphors. It was a traditional/power cusp record with rough edges and a youthful "let's throw in everything we personally love about heavy metal and go for it" exuberance that led to a label contract and release under Napalm Records. Their new record, 'Apex', is an investment in polished steel; metal that slices clean as a surgeon's blade.
Since this is a concept story, we can look at the overall tale that is told--a character named "The Matriarch" awakens "The Immortal" from his mountain rest of a couple thousand years. Instead of a brave new world of possibilities, he is cursed to follow her commands on a quest to kill her sons so she can achieve immortality.
Opening track "Awakening", our intro to the Immortal, begins as an ominous instrumental (shades of movie trailer themes) before firing off with a primal scream, the birth cry of the protagonist out of his mountain womb led by the furious speed of power metal. It's glorious and triumphant with a chorus that would make Helloween fans take notice. "Shadow Guide" keeps the pace up but cuts back on the majesty as the vocals pain a recognition represented by the appearance of the falcon; here a totem animal guide of fate. "The Matriarch" is a dramatic telling of the iron-fisted, ruling antagonist. Again vocalist Brittney Slayes opens with a scream but this time it's for the terror-lore of the evil character. "The Matriarch" is an anxious, energetic enchanter but the real black heart of the album is the menacing "Cleanse the Bloodlines" where the meeting and mission is set forth. The extreme crunch of the mid-paced guitar riffs overlay a variety of drum patterns producing a bombastic sound with unpredictable counterpoints. Prior songs on here could be done by many power metal bands, but "Cleanse" opens 'Apex' up to the Archers' unique voice as a group. A single line provides the propelling narrative, "Cleanse the bloodlines, free me from the clutch of Death incarnate, my reign must never end". Monk-styled gang chants bring us all into the fray with Brittney's passionate ascending vocals.
Where the first third of 'Apex' tends towards compact, racing, Euro-power wind-ups, longer songs that follow combine power and traditional metal styles and structures; deeper cuts move into introspective territory as the story pushes the quest for the four sons in "The Cowards Way" (politician), "False Walls" (religious leader), "Ten Thousand Against One" (military commander), and "Earth and Ashes" (family man) which has guest vocals from guitarist Andrew Kingsley. "Ten Thousand" could be a crowd favorite with its groove and shouts, but "Earth and Ashes" adds pathos otherwise we're rooting for The Immortal as simply a pawn-killer, an indestructible terminator of abhorrent characters. To suffer is to be human, as it is said.
With the pendent hope of freedom to carry him through his tasks, "Call Me Immortal" has the galloping pace of victory as the Immortal succeeds and returns to his mountain, albeit contrasted with an underlying, Pyrrhic resignation from his cursed fatalism. It is an affirmation of self regardless of the betrayal and what he has done. With eight of ten songs regarding him, 'Apex' really is a story of the Immortal with the Matriarch as the shadow of control; two individuals with opposite objectives--one wishes for eternal life while the other desires to be freed from it--making this a tale of discarded humanity.
If "Cleanse" is the album's darkness, title track "Apex" is the balancing light; a proper high note end to the tragedy. It brings to mind "Dream of Mirrors/Brave New World" Iron Maiden with its extended length, melodic leads, and highly addictive chorus: "Can you follow me...follow me to Apex". Brittney's beautiful, opening singing (more please!) mimics the soothing return embrace of the mountain home before exploding with immense power and triplet-styled drums. "Apex" finishes with a lullaby back into slumber where the song's end circles back to the beginning with a soft set of lyrics that suggest the comfort of rest is an interim and this saga may continue on later.
Comparatively, 'Apex' feels more musically consistent and controlled than prior releases; band growth and maturity at work. Their signature blending of traditional clean (Brittney) and unclean vocals (melodeath growls--Andrew and Grant) is used sparingly with different characters. Jacob Hansen (Volbeat, Primal Fear, Mercenary, U.D.O., Amaranthe) handled the production of 'Apex' giving it a gleaming shine of sound, the only negative tic about 'Time'. Apex' guitar bite allows them to straddle structures of the past and the sound quality of the present. Artwork is by Ken Sarafin at Sarafin Concepts, this time with muted colors and artwork suggestive of the lyrics. The explosive outward design of their last release is now petrified inwardness.
Unleash the Archers are firmly in control of their destiny with 'Apex' and deserve the accolades of making such a dark story sound so appealing.
Note: Look for the bonus cover track, Queensryche's "Queen of the Ryche", on the Japanese pressing!
About this Writer: Frank Hill // Frank Hill has been at this site since its slimy, crying birth in '03. He was born on National Metal Day--11/11 and will turn his hearing aids up to 11 when he's 111. He secretly listens to a lot of old Country and Doo-Wop tunes and wants to start a cyberband with lead vocals by Robot Plant. He is still trying to figure out what Judas Priest meant by "paratamize you". If you read this, then he salutes you.
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