Is AVATAR the most exciting and innovative metal band to achieve mainstream commercial success lately? Yes. Is AVATAR continuing the storied tradition of bands like Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, and Mudvayne to combine compelling visuals, stage theatrics, and strong musicianship, but then also underpin it with incredible songwriting? Also yes. Is the band’s new album, “Hunter Gatherer”, worth your time, whether you’re a longtime fan, or this is your first foray? Well, let’s find out, shall we?
AVATAR, despite their relatively young age, has been fighting the good fight for metal for nearly 20 years as a band. Hailing from good ol’ Göteborg (Gothenburg,) Sweden, home of other titanic greats such as In Flames and Evergrey, AVATAR continues the tradition of fine Swedish metal bands, but in arguably a more mainstream metal sort of way. Admittedly, though, they have bucked that trend over the last few albums, starting with 2016’s concept album, “Feathers & Flesh”. Personally speaking, I was lucky enough to see them on their first-ever North American tour, opening for Sevendust and Lacuna Coil in a small club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, February 2013, and I was not familiar with them before the show. This was on the tour for what was amazingly already their fourth album, “Black Waltz”, and really was the beginning of their breakthrough as a band. I was instantly smitten with the band’s stage presence, especially lead vocalist Johannes Eckestrom, whose towering presence and love for professional wrestling instantly came across as he entered stage left in costume on top of costume dressed as some nightmarish duct tape knight from a comic convention, a layer he later shed to reveal his now-[in]famous jester facepaint, suspenders, undershirt, and porkpie hat. After their set, I immediately left my balcony seat and met Eckestrom at the band’s merch table, along with bassist Henrik Sandelin, who was much more baby-faced in those days. While wearing my Opeth hoodie, I professed my love for heavy Swedish music (Pain of Salvation, Soilwork, etc.) and told the pair they’d earned a fan for life.
Shortly after that tour, the band posted on Facebook that they were working on their next album, which would ultimately become “Hail The Apocalypse”, and remarked upon how tricky it could be coming up with new material. As most anyone reading this article would know, “Hail The Apocalypse” is a fantastic album, and while it further refined their oompa-oompa organ grinder and monkey from hell brand of modern metal, that album’s closer, “Tower”, was a premonition of where the band would take us over the next few albums, showcasing Eckestrom‘s clean vocals maturing and evolving, as well as how sharply-honed the band’s songwriting was becoming. Whatever difficulty the band was referring to in the aforementioned Facebook post, we sure weren’t seeing it in the fruits of their labor.
As great and fun as “Hail The Apocalypse” was, the aforementioned “Feathers & Flesh” showed the band really coming into their own with attempting lofty ideas and goals, telling the story of a war between eagle and owl, literally between light and dark, all the while in a catchy and chaotic concept album that further proved the band had not yet reached its creative peak.
From there, the band entered “Avatar Country”, welcomed us all to it, and deftly crafted what is arguably the greatest album of their career. Guitarists Kungen and Tim Öhrström fired on all cylinders across the entire effort, and drummer John Alfredsson gave perhaps his best album performance to date, as well. After I had openly said multiple times that Eckestrom needed to embrace his clean vocals, “Avatar Country” showed off many different facets of his voice. It was clearly a completely next level effort for the band. “Avatar Country”, after the success of “Feathers & Flesh”, has given the band the incredibly tough job of figuring out where to go next, yet again.
Enter the new album, “Hunter Gatherer”. There’s no concept this time, unlike “Feathers & Flesh”. There’s no unifying theme and theatrical direction like “Avatar Country”. For the first time since “Hail The Apocalypse” in 2014, the band is giving us a relatively straight-forward album again. But this band has changed and evolved in the past half-decade. 2014’s AVATAR could not have given us “Avatar Country”, but 2018’s version of the band did. And that version of the band, plus a couple of years, is now giving us “Hunter Gatherer”. The songs are more straightforward than before, much more akin to “Black Waltz”, actually. They are just rock-solid metal songs, but they’re performed with more confidence, instrumental prowess, inventiveness, and swagger than what the band could have pulled off in 2012.
“Silence in The Age of Apes,” the album opener, sounds like it would have fit in perfectly as one of the shorter songs on Devin Townsend Project‘s “Deconstruction”, reminding us of Juular in its utter destruction, blast beat frenzy, and huge sections of harsh vocals and gang vocals. The dissonance of the main riff and the harmony of the two guitars in the gang vocal section are almost reminiscent of “Ghost Reveries” / “Watershed” era Opeth. Upon first listen, it might have entered my Top 5 songs from AVATAR. It’s that good.
Song two, “Colossus”, does not stray far from the path forged by the album opener. It starts with a sort of funky, stomp-clap, Lars from “St. Anger” drumbeat, before it propels us into Marilyn Manson vocal fry verses, only to hammer us on the head with a chorus befitting of X-Men’s resident metal badass, Colossus, sharing the same name as this most badass of AVATAR songs. If there was ever a song from this band that would make me lose my voice at a show, this could be it.
“A Secret Door”, in a moment of reprieve, lures us in with soothing synth pads and whistling, only to hit us with the same melody in the lead guitar under yet another crushing riff. This one is closer to mid-tempo, but treats us to Johannes‘ clean vocals, which just keep getting better and better, before hitting us with a punk rock drum beat and Johannes‘ harsh vocals, which, coincidentally enough, also keep getting better and better, but also more diverse. If anything, that might be the best word to describe AVATAR‘s evolution: diverse. They keep giving us more and more, but better and better, and keep progressing and challenging themselves, and this dark and beautiful heavy piece of rock are a perfect example of how and why. “A Secret Door” is also the longest song on the album, clocking in at over six minutes.
“God of Sick Dreams” gives us what could be considered the new classic AVATAR sound. The old live classics “Let It Burn” and “Bloody Angel” are now evolving into songs like this one. The hurdy-gurdy organ grinder days, while still aesthetically here, are now sonically replaced with crushing metal.
Which brings us to our next track, one of my personal favorites on the album, “Scream Until You Wake”. Palm-muting, double bass, low rumbling bass reminiscent of everyone’s personal hero David Ellefson, and then epic vocals from Eckestrom. This one has an urgent, snare-slamming, fist-pumping chorus that would have sounded as fresh as an opening band for Ozzy Osbourne on “The Ultimate Sin” in 1986 as it does for us now in 2020. Of course, they might not have been ready for the harsh vocals then, but in the words of Marty McFly, “your kids are gonna love it.” This one’s tied with “Silence in The Age of Apes” for my favorite song on the album, with “Colossus” not far behind.
The flip side of the album begins with “Child”, which returns us to the old days of AVATAR quite easily with a dark tale told in an equally dark but also quirky way, reminding us of the aforementioned “Bloody Angel”, but also, strangely enough, a bit of Alice Cooper‘s “Dead Babies” in a much more modern setting. At the ending, one could almost hear innocent childlike vocals akin to “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, over mournful clean guitar chords.
Wake up! AVATAR doesn’t give you much time to reflect, as “Justice” blows up your speakers just a few seconds after “Child” almost lulls you into a false sense of security. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this cut, other than some extremely solid guitar work (likely from Kungen) and some well-placed spoken word from Eckestrom, yet it’s probably my least favorite of the record. That said, there’s a decent amount of social commentary on this album, as evidenced on this song, and its follow-up, “Gun”.
“Gun” gives us the most quiet and contemplative moment of the album, with soft piano and similar vocals from Eckestrom and very quiet bass rumbling underneath it all. The concept of giving a boy a gun and taking his innocence is not exactly a new concept for rock music, but AVATAR‘s execution of this idea is admirable and heartbreaking in its tenderness. It’s refreshing to have a ballad from the band, while it’s unsurprisingly a bit of a tearjerker… it could really be a special moment in a live setting, especially once the cello solo enters. It’s a much-needed moment for reflection and contemplation in an album that is otherwise pretty much an onslaught.
Speaking of onslaught, the last two songs take us out much the same way as we entered. Where the last few albums have ended with quasi-epics in songs like “Tower”, “Sky Burial”, and “Silent Songs of The King”, the last two pummel the listener into submission: “When All But Force Has Failed”, the penultimate song, is just fast and frenetic, and maybe the most pummeling thing we’ve heard AVATAR do in quite a while. Between the hammer-on/pull-off guitar work going on, the slamming drums, and unbelievably harsh, and potentially distorted, vocals… it’s fewer than three minutes of pure and simple blitzkrieg.
And finally, “Wormhole”. One of the most fun riffs on the album – it’s a mix between shredding while turning your tuning knobs, and listening to super-cars changing gears. “Wormhole” works as a really robust bookend along with the album opener, the two of them are a sort of yin and yang to open and close the album, however, this one sort of just ends and leaves us wanting maybe just something a little bit more – a bonus track, a quiet piano moment, a quiet spoken moment, just something – to really take us out. It’s not a bad closing moment a all, but the whole album has been so good, that it seems almost like we need just a little more denouement… or maybe I’m just being greedy.
Is “Hunter Gatherer” the best album AVATAR has released? For my ears I still prefer “Feathers & Flesh” or “Avatar Country”, but obviously music taste is a subjective experience and your mileage may vary. It would have been a bad idea to attempt another lofty conceptual piece after the last two records, those two were on such a different level, that to return to a more straightforward album after it’s been six years since “Hail The Apocalypse”, it’s a bit like the die has already been cast. Nonetheless “Hunter Gatherer” is undoubtedly a very gratifying effort, and one which will certainly please new and old fans until the next bit of brilliance reaches our ears from Sweden. It has the unenviable task of following up amazing predecessors and it does so with grace, raw heaviness and assuring cohesion.
Released By: Entertainment One
Release Date: August 7th, 2020
- Johannes Michael Gustaf Eckerström / Vocals
- John Alfredsson / Drums
- Kungen / Guitars
- Tim Öhrström / Guitars
- Henrik Sandelin / Bass
“Hunter Gatherer” track-listing:
1. Silence in the Age of Apes
3. A Secret Door
4. God of Sick Dreams
5. Scream Until You Wake
9. When All but Force Has Failed
“Hunter Gatherer” is now available for pre-order here.
“Hunter Gatherer” sounds enormous, from a sonic perspective, and the band is tighter than ever. They keep getting better and better. More confident. More technical. More brutal. More crushing. AVATAR is showing us they have the makings of creating something colossal and really classic, and it'll be interesting to see what amazing idea they come up next. My only gripe? AVATAR is best is when AVATAR is over-the-top and full of theatrics, and while “Hunter Gatherer” has all the window dressing of a superb metal album, it kind of lacks that undefinable characteristic or bit of personality that could take it from being a really substantial album to being unforgettable.