AMARANTHE - What Would Freddie Say?
October 24, 2016, a year ago
When Swedish pop-metallers Amaranthe dropped the first single from their new Maximalism album, "That Song", the mastermind behind Billy's Metal Mulisha on YouTube, Billy Kasper, was one of the first to weigh in. Like many Amaranthe fans, yours truly included, he was weaned on old school metal (Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth) and now boasts a wide spectrum of metallic taste (Stone Sour, In Flames, Suffocation, and on and on...), leaving plenty of room for Amaranthe's presumably lighter fare. Kasper was put off by the track, and for all the fans that voiced their lust and support for "That Song" there seemed to be an equal number that echoed his reaction above. In much the same way The Agonist has been lambasted by some of their followers for the changes in the band's sound on their new Five album, there is some resistance amongst the Amaranthe faithful in accepting their sonic update. Their trademark pop elements are more pronounced than ever, and the death metal growls that have been a not-so-subtle nuance have finally taken a solid third of Amaranthe's three vocalist spotlight, making for all kinds of discussion as to what should and should not be allowed as part of the band's aresenal. In the end - and it took repeated listens to figure this out - Maximalism is all about contrasts and Amaranthe's evolution rather than phoning in a predictably successful formula-fed album.
"Exactly," says guitarist Olof Mörck- "I think you got it perfectly. People are intrigued by the record because it's obviously different from what we've done before. For us, when we started to write the album it was all about diversity because I still love The Nexus (2013) and the first album (2011), but they did have a very firm concept and we went with that conecpt 100%. And since we were so early into our career there wasn't a huge need for variation. On the Massive Addictive record (2014) we felt that we maybe had to throw some things around a little bit. At the outset of Maximalism, I think we were trying to throw a lot of different things around because one of the main points with the first two albums is that they were in context when they were released. They were very fresh and people didn't react overly enthusiastic about the music, just like yourself, but they realized we're a real band that can play our music live. The thing is that if we kept on releasing albums that sounded similar we would have lost that freshness. We were trying to find new perspectives on what is actually fun with Maximalism so the music is new and fresh for us."
One of those "fun" aspects of the new music is the increase of pop elements in some, but not all, of the songs on Maximalism,
"That was one of the ways we could go," Olof agrees, "but then you have a song like 'Fury' which is way more brutal than anything we've done before. As the songs were starting to come together we saw that we had a lot of them and could take things in different directions, and increase the diversity this time around. That was the main concept for Maximalism; whatever we feel is fun and relevant to Amaranthe goes on this album. I think the diversity is one thing we've been missing up until now."
"I think your impressions are telling towards what the general reaction is going to be," he adds. "A lot of people are going to be surprised because they think we're going to play it safe by making Maximalism a combination between Massive Addictive and The Nexus. The contrast here is much greater. The song 'Boomerang', for example, is a fun song and it's very pop in the chorus, but when Henrik's (Englund / growls) part kicks in it's brutal and there's a Meshuggah kind of groove behind him. It's very extreme. I think too many bands play things too safe, and if they come up with a concept that works they stick with it. We're the kind of band that needs to innovate in order to keep things interesting for ourselves."
Amaranthe has never been shy about the electronic / digital elements in their music, and as the Maximalism title suggests more is more in that regard. Oddly enough, for all the technology used to power the new songs, Olof's guitar solos stand out as being particuarly lush and organic. Another example of the record's diversity.
"A lot of the guitar solos were improvised or quickly recorded on the spot because looking back on some of my solos, I did a lot of takes. These ones are more playful. Plus, I was getting solo coaching from Elize (Ryd / vocals) who inspired me to play faster and more spontaneously. So, you're actually on target when you talk about the organic feel of the solos. It's nice to know people can actually hear that, and that's the whole contrast. Of course we have all these eleronic elements and keyboards which are extremely inorganic, but what I've come to find is that when you combine those things with a real band playing real music you get a very powerful and diverse result."
Folks can also hear a distinct Queen influence on the new album, for better (the vocal harmonies, particularly on "Supersonic") and for worse (the drums on "That Song").
"Dude, for the second time in a row you completely nailed it," says Olof. "I don't know how obvious it is, but for both me and Elize and I think Jake (vocals) as well, Queen is one of my all time favourite bands. We haven't necessarily been influenced by them before, but I think there are three or four new songs that were directly inspired by Queen."
Olof, Elize and Jake have previously gone on record saying that deciding who sings which vocal parts on an Amaranthe album is a matter of trial and error as the songs take shape. Maximalism was no different, although it has to be said that it seems to be Elize's show this time out when it comes to the clean vocals. If that's what you're hearing, Olof says it wasn't intentional.
"When Jake, Elize and I sat down to write we didn't really know who would be singing which part. The song 'On The Rocks' was recorded with Elize doing the lead vocals but I wanted to hear Jake sing it, which also sounded fantatstic, so we moved back and forth between the parts. Most of the time it's an easy decision because there's usually a natural flow of who goes where. Elize gets 'Endlessly', the Disney ballad as you called it (laughs), and there is a Rihanna flair on 'Fury' - I'm probably going to get crucified for saying that (laughs) - but she also has songs where she has a rock vibe. That's sort of a model for the band in general. Morten (Sørensen / drums), for example, can blastbeat like a monster or play a really jazzy groove, and it's nice to be able to show the diversity of the specific band members. It keeps thing interesting for us as composers and performers. We play everything on the album, and I have to mention that on the drums there is very, very little editing. There wasn't too much of that before, but in terms of the whole album it goes along with what I said about the guitars; we didn't do too many re-takes this time. The whole thing should feel a lot more organic, and Morten put in an absolutely amazing drum performance this time around."
Given that Amaranthe is a proven live band and they owe a large part of their sound to use of keyboards, there's a question as to why they use backing tracks live rather than having a flesh-and-blood keyboard player.
"Well, that's because I'm the keyboard player and it's hard to play guitar and keys at the same time," laughs Olof. "The thing is, if there had been a lot of real piano and Hammond organ, and maybe some keyboard solos, it would be very strange to have the keyboards on backing tracks. The keyboards that we are using are more programmed back-up stuff. Maybe in the future we'll have a live keyboard player if we really need one. We actually try to play the stuff that we record because there are just too many bands these days that go into the studio and use Pro-Tools and Cubase too heavily. When they play live it's just a pale shadow of what you hear on the album. I'm fortunate to have some pretty decent musicians around me (laughs)."
Regardless of how people weigh in on their albums, it's fair to say Amaranthe owes their success on being a live band. They have been on the road constantly since the release of The Nexus, clocking thousands of kilometers on the even larger Massive Addictive tour, and will be doing it all over again for Maximalism well into 2017.
"It was actually quite shocking when I was looking back at it," Olof admits of the touring for Massive Addictive. "I was collecting all the gigs on a list because we have to report them to the publishing company, and I was wondering 'Did we actually go to all these places..?' (laughs). It was three North American tours, and I think we're the only Swedish band in the last 10 years that has done three North American tours on one album. There were different territories and on each tour we had more and more people showing up, we even made a profit on the tour, and most importantly we were able to stay active and promote the band. We got to do what we love most and we'll be doing it again for Maximalism, which is performing live."