Arch Enemy — Black Earth (1996)

Black Earth is a pretty tasty little record. 9 tracks and 32 minutes, and if you take out the one-minute instrumental interludes, that makes an almost exact half hour. Good job. Black Earth from front to back carries that half-hour album energy of intensity and urgency. Metal records generally speaking don’t need to be longer than this. Why are they then? Labels, why else. No greater disservice was done to the metal musicians of the 2000s than being stuck on record contracts that demanded at least 50 minutes of new music every two years. This is a significant portion of the reason that the thrash classics of the 80’s still hold up: they refuse to wear out their welcome.

“Bury Me An Angel” opens the record in excellent fashion, showing the two primary facets of this record’s sound. The guitars sound as though they used a string gauge that was a little bit too light for the B-standard tuning that was employed, sometimes making small things here or there sound just the tiniest bit out of tune. This accentuates the two styles of riffs Arch Enemy tend to employ on this record: nasty old-school death metal and thrash riffs, and the more melodic power metal-esque choruses and solo sections. Like many bands, the band loves to have a song pulled between the tension of an “uglier” riff and a “prettier” riff, such that when the prettier riff arrives it feels as though the sky has opened to reveal the blinding light of the sun. The “loose” guitar sound throws a layer of grime onto all of this, making the ugly riffs feel even nastier, and the pretty riffs feel sullied and imperfect. This may sound somewhat similar to Slaughter in The Soul, which is a fair comparison of course, but I’d point to the primary difference as being a bit of sludge more or less. The key to the SoTS aesthetic is the endless speed, whereas Arch Enemy here often put in something just nasty and groovy. (See the bridge on “Bury Me An Angel” or the chorus to “Transmigration Macabre”)

Very little bass playing of note occurs (we’ll discuss bassist/vocalist Johan Liiva later on), but drummer Daniel Erlandson (younger brother of ATG drummer Adrian) is to be commended for keeping up with the band’s frantic pace, adding rhythmic interest virtually whenever he gets the chance. At the young age of 20 here he shows some real chops.

This is where we get to some of the record’s perhaps less desirable aspects. Riffs are strong here, but songwriting itself often feels unsteady. “Cosmic Retribution” shows this more than any track, veering wildly between not just different types of riffs, but also different tempos, before a dual lead section where Michael plays a solo, and then everything drops out for an acoustic section by Christopher, followed by a solo by him, and a return to one of the song’s wilder riffs. There’s nothing wrong with any of the individual parts, but the connective tissue just doesn’t seem to be there at times. It doesn’t help that following “Cosmic Retribution” the record features a random one-off riff as “Demoniality”, followed by “Transmigration Macabre” and then another instrumental track, the solo guitar showcase “Time Machine”, before the closer “Fields of Desolation.” Whereas the first half of the record merely features songs that sometimes feel haphazard, “Cosmic Retribution” seems to send the entire structure itself into a tailspin.

As well, “Time Machine” is a very lovely acoustic interlude, the sort I inherently enjoy, but it brings up another pet peeve of mine, this time in the negative. I wrote this review before I wrote about The Lunar Strain but it ended up being relevant so this section of text is used in both reviews: I really don’t need to hear the soulful blues licks of melodic death metal players, or really pretty much any metal guitarist who isn’t Tony Iommi. (Let it be known I officially certify Tony Iommi as having That Stank and I am ok with him playing blues leads.) It’s one thing to hear a little pentatonic, but when it starts getting into the cliches that were hammered dead in the 70’s (and 60’s, and 50’s, and 40’s) it not only sounds stupid in the context of the genre but it just feels like a really stupid grab at some sort of false authenticity. Having a basic command of blues lead guitar playing does not make you “authentic”, it makes you someone who’s picked up a guitar and learned how to play rock music in the past 50 years. Most importantly the slow, torturous bends you are playing does not add any “realness” to the music that wasn’t already there. Perhaps hearing these types of licks unlocks something within others that it doesn’t do for me, but I’m always shocked by the inauthenticity of these types of licks when they occur.

The lyrics are almost the dictionary definition of “average” metal lyrics, truly in the exact middle of disgrace and greatness. Duties are split between Mike Amott and Johan Liiva, with a combination of personal woes and misery (“Dark Insanity”, “Eureka”) mixed amongst biblical (“Bury Me An Angel”) and apocalyptic (“Fields of Desolation”) visions, as well as sometimes the three subjects all being tossed together at once (“Idolatress”). As an aesthetic plus, the choice specifically of biblical imagery matches well to the band’s music that often uses baroque music tropes. (Diminished arpeggio riffs as well as the obvious neoclassical influences displayed by the Amott brothers lead playing.)

As well, the vocals are some serious “take it or leave it” without anything ever changing about the performance. Bassist/Vocalist Johan Liiva gives a completely consistent vocal performance that has genuine aggression, but the pitch of the voice sometimes feels a little off. The easiest point of comparison, rather than any of his growling Swedish contemporaries, would be the sort of aggressive, sing-sony talking that Tom G. Warrior did on Into The Pandemonium, and you might also draw comparisons to types like Forbidden frontman Russ Anderson, or for a less charitable comparison, perhaps Dark Angel frontman Ron Rinehart. And whereas that type of voice works without question in the realms of the avant-garde of thrash or the avant-garde of metal itself, it feels mildly out of place here, even with the guitars having that mildly “dirty” vibe, if only because it feels like the vocalist is the worst musician in the band. The band seems at least partially aware of this, and on album closer “Fields of Desolation” they have Liiva sing along to himself, and the results are not pretty.

I wouldn’t usually include a note like this regarding a bonus track, but it seems to really explain the issue. On expanded editions of the record, there’s a cover of the Iron Maiden classic “Aces High”, which almost seems like a rib on a vocalist of Liiva’s style. “Aces High” is of course, one of the signature vocal performances in power metal, and maybe Bruce Dickinson’s best single performance as a vocalist. It’s also one of the more basic Iron Maiden songs arrangement wise, getting by on some exciting key changes, and the chorus in particular relies on being carried by Dickinson’s awesome and powerful harmonies. For Arch Enemy’s cover, Liiva is left to merely bark along to the lyrics: “RUN! … LIVE! … TO! … FLY!” It’s pretty sad. There are other Iron Maiden songs to cover y’know. I figured the band would do something like emulate the vocal harmonies on their downtuned guitars, which would’ve sounded awesome. Nope. Just a sad bestacled bassist barking alone. The solution is obvious, that to turn “Aces High” into an MDM track, you at least need a vocalist capable of sustaining a bellowing roar, such as we’ve heard Mikael Staane perform, who could then turn those harmonic sections into an opportunity to display the brutality of one’s growl.

In the overall we have a metal record that strongly establishes its basic aesthetic upfront, gives us some exciting tracks in the nascent MDM style, but whereas the first half of the record feels frenetic and exciting, the latter half goes a bit off the deep end and feels jumbled and confused, with each of the last three full songs coming off as potential closers, crammed full of ideas, and ultimately running together to make the last half of the record feel like some sort of endless barrage until “Fields of Desolation” is over. It feels like they weren’t entirely sure how to end this album. There may be many for whom this makes the back half of the record an exciting journey though, so trust your ears.

While sometimes lacking structure, something that lead me to absolutely castigate Sacrilege’s Lost In The Beauty You Slay, this record is more than making up for that not just in stronger hooks, but with serious, undeniable energy. I don’t know what else to say, this is just a really fun record. Also, the riffs are just flat out better than the Sacrilege record, and that counts for something. Even as songs would test strange structures, they were always compelling primarily because each new riff seems to bring fun new surprises.

Conclusion: Black Earth is 32 minutes of catchy, tuneful, but sometimes structureless material, barked over by a vocalist that some will adore and others will find to be completely unlistenable. Merely for being the debut Arch Enemy album it is a notable historic artifact, but on top of that it’s also a record that makes a bridge between the melancholic Gothenburg sound, and something like sludge, with a significant, unignorable amount of trash metal as well. MDM isn’t always the most “fun” genre, but this record brings the fun big time, with a lack of self-seriousness that I found to be a serious relief from their contemporaries. While I might not have much to say about this album, comparatively, I can also say that I listened to it a ton of times and was just enjoying the hell out of it every time I turned it on. Give this one a go.

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