Overall Score: 8/10 Riffs: 8/10 Consistency: 8/10 Melodies: 9/10 Pros: Incredible vocal work throughout // Riffing remains as solid as ever Cons: More straightforward sound may be a turn-off for some // Corey Taylor cameo feels like a slight waste
Theatricality in rock music has long served as a means for bands to make themselves stand out from the crowd and draw listeners into worlds of their own creation. Whether it be the campy almost-pantomime horror of Alice Cooper, the falsetto wails of King Diamond’s macabre opus Abigail, or the conceptual fairytale-like world-building of Avantasia, the idea of utilising theatre as an augmentation to music has long been adopted by bands as a tool to give audiences more. In the almost two decades now since Swedish melodic-death-metallers Avatar first began their avant-garde taken on the genre, the Gothenburg quintet have managed to cultivate a similar aura, beginning in earnest with the adoption of a dark carnival aesthetic on 2012’s Black Waltz and expanding on recent conceptual output Feathers & Flesh and Avatar Country, the band becoming a juggernaut of darkly comic, creative metal in the process as they began to build their own fantastical worlds around them. Their eighth album, Hunter Gatherer, turns all of that on its’ head however and (in a somewhat ironic twist) sees the Swedes pivoting away from the folklore world of their own creation, to the suddenly more-real-than-they’d-expected idea of humanity heading to its’ doom.
A sprinkling of foreboding synthetic noise starts things off for Avatar this time around, opener and lead single Silence in the Age of Apes then quickly launching off at speed with a punchy staccato riff and galloping drums accompanying the arrival of demented ringmaster Johannes Eckerström’s trademark barked vocal pattern. Melding this relentless pace to a twisted gang vocal chant of a chorus that seems tailor-made for the eventual return of live shows, the band quickly remind the listener of their knack for a catchy hook; in fact the first of many to come across Hunter Gatherer’s 46 minute runtime. Songs like Child and Justice continue to illustrate this point as the album rolls on, both tracks featuring some stellarly-delivered but still off-kilter feeling clean vocal work and earworm choruses that fans and newcomers alike should quickly be able to latch onto.
Whereas the theatricality inherent in both their sound and aesthetic had often been the focal point on previous Avatar records (sometimes to the point of comedy), stripping much of that away means that the simple melding of big hulking riffs and even bigger hulking chorusesseem to become very much the order of the day on this eighth studio record. Working once more with Avatar Country producer Jay Ruston, the band are clearly in a solid creative headspace; the likes of God of Sick Dreams and Scream Until You Wake proving excellent examples of their ability to craft monstrously anthemic songs with just enough unique flair (the gloriously 80s guitar solos of Jonas “Kungen” Jarlsby and Tim Öhrström in the latter sounding particularly delightful).
That’s not to say the previous eclecticism element of the band is entirely gone on Hunter Gatherer though; A Secret Door in particular sees what may well be the strangest metal cameo of 2020 thus far as Slipknot mouthpiece Corey Taylor turns up to deliver….a melodic whistling intro. Yes, really. Where most bands of their size would likely leap on the opportunity to have one of modern metal’s biggest figureheads as a prominent feature on their records, Avatar are content to instead cheekily throw him in as a hilariously uncredited “wait, what?” easter egg for fans to discover. It’s mental, but in the context of Avatar’s general penchant for madness, seems oddly fitting.
It’s somehow not even the biggest curveball on Hunter Gatherer though, that instead coming with the arrival of Gun – a disarmingly emotive piano ballad that strips back the band’s sound almost entirely for four and a half minutes of expertly-crafted melody that perfectly serves to display Eckerström’s vocal versatility and serve as a solid breather in between the relative chaos surrounding it. Of course, having just slowed itself down for a time, the natural follow-up is for Avatar to immediately hit the gas again with almost no warning and promptly smack the listener about the face with probably the record’s most ferocious moment. When All But Force Has Failed clocks in at below the three-minute mark, a sonic tornado of spidery riffing and practically-rapped shrieking from Eckerström that doubles in effectiveness thanks to the jarring turn away from its’ predecessor. Finally, Wormhole then brings things to a close; a lumbering behemoth of a riff interspersed with blasts of speedy fretboard shredding guiding listeners along one last sonic journey that finally climaxes after yet more 80s-esque soloing with a sudden abrupt stop and slow fade-out with some sci-fi feeling electronics the full stop on Avatar’s newest tale.
All in all, there’s a lot to love about Hunter Gatherer indeed. Stripping away much of the more rigid conceptual constraints of their most recent output, the band seem to have unleashed a latent fire, crafting perhaps their most focused and direct statement in years, and emerging all the better for it. Free from the constrictive ties of a narrative once more, Hunter Gatherer simply sees Avatar doing what they do best – firing on all cylinders with a punchy set of melodic anthems sure to be the perfect soundtrack to the end of the world.
The new Avatar album, Hunter Gatherer, is released on the 7th of August on Century Media Records. Pick up the album directly from the band at Bandcamp now!