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Ok, so here’s the deal: in 2019, I’m finding it kind of hard to critique a new Soilwork record. The Swedish metal outfit are practically a household name across the pond in their frostbitten homeland, enjoying a hot streak of critical appreciation in their twenty-third year together. The heavy music press still lumps them in with the melodic death metal movement they helped to popularise back in the late 90s and early 2000s. However, that feels somewhat lazy to me now.
Much like their regional contemporaries within the “Gothenburg sound” – In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and (to a lesser extent) At The Gates, Soilwork have gradually evolved from the days of overt fret-fondling and breakneck blast-beats to become something more representative of outsider influences. Across their hefty back catalogue – ‘Verkligheten’ stands as LP #11, #12 if you acknowledge 2013’s ‘The Living Infinite’ as a double-album – the Helsingborg quintet have allowed numerous moods and soundscapes to creep into their genre Venn diagram. This ranges from nu-metal, glam, speed metal, industrial, power metal to good ol’ classic heavy metal. Look no further than the recent success of frontman Björn ‘Speed’ Strid and lead guitarist David Andersson’s 80s-worshipping, ELO–Boston time machine, A Night Flight Orchestra, as evidence for their creative wellspring breadth.
“But Owen,” I hear you say, “what the fuck does all of this have to do with this new album?” And to that most pressing of charges, dear reader, I say: “Yeah true, alright.”
When you get down to the finer details, every Soilwork album still feels like a Soilwork album. No matter which miscellaneous and errant genre gets mashed in there along the way, Strid’s distinctive vocal performance and the band’s potent DNA ensures each record sounds cohesive and true to their legacy. Which, as you might imagine, makes evaluating their latest entirely upon its own merits rather difficult. What this means is that listening to new Soilwork is less of a “Is this a good record as a whole?” experience, and more of a “Which bangers will end up on the ‘Essential Soilwork’ playlist?” scenario. Thankfully, in this respect, their new LP delivers a few goods.
With Andersson being a full-time member since 2012 (after the second round departure of founding lead guitarist, Peter Wichers) and their principal songwriter, the creative hot streak found on previous LPs continues on ‘Verkligheten’. Tracks like ‘Bleeder Despoiler’ and ‘The Nurturing Glance’ are just pure melo-death ragers, destined to slot into future live setlists nicely, with their winding lead passages, thumping rhythms and headbang-worthy moments.
Strid, now the only original member remaining, still has some of the most impressive pipes in heavy music, with an unbeatable dynamic range that swings effortlessly from smooth, soaring choruses to coarse, blood-pumping screams. New drummer Bastian Thusgaard gets plenty of time to shine as well, peppering the record with blistering blasts and fusillades of pounding double-kick mayhem, whilst keyboardist Sven Karlsson adds delicate synth flourishes in the background. The group slow things down with some mid-tempo experimentation on ‘Stålfågel’, sticking firmly in gear so Strid and guest vocalist Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy) can playfully out harmonise one another. (Also, that high-pitch scream Strid holds towards the track’s end? Psycho-shit.) Elsewhere, cuts like ‘The Wolves Are Back in Town’ and ‘The Ageless Whisper’ keep things exciting, with subtle throwbacks to the band’s early 2000s work.
Yet for every track that’s ‘hot’, there’s a counterpart that’s ‘not’. Side-A tracks like ‘Arrival’ and ‘Full Moon Shoals’ pass by without a single memorable hook or interesting moment. ‘Witan’ has this irritating vocal refrain in the verses, which distracts from an otherwise classic Soilwork chorus. Then, final cuts like ‘Needles and Kin’ and ‘You Aquiver’ feel superfluous and tacked on, functioning as excuses to drop mostly forgettable guest performances from Dave Sheldon and Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis).
‘Verkligheten’ is a mixed bag. The bangers definitely bang, while the filler certainly fills. It honestly almost feels like there was an EP’s worth of quality material in the studio that was then padded out with some re-worked A Night Flight Orchestra demos. Truthfully, for a band as consistent as Soilwork, that’s fine. At the very least, it lets the band fulfill their contractual record obligations, drop a new album, and get back out on the road playing the hits to their ardent fans. And I certainly can’t fault them for that. Established fans will find some new tracks to add to the playlist, but it’s not the type of record that will attract or convince newfound listeners to dig any deeper. Not great, not awful, ‘Verkligheten’ just is. As the English translation suggests, that’s just the reality.
- Bleeder Despoiler
- Full Moon Shoals
- The Nurturing Glance
- When the Universe Spoke
- Stålfågel (featuring Alissa White-Gluz)
- The Wolves Are Back in Town
- The Ageless Whisper
- Needles and Kin (featuring Tomi Joutsen)
- You Aquiver (featuring Dave Sheldon)
‘Verkligheten’ is out now via Nuclear Blast – find streaming and digital copies of the record here.