Review: Unleash the Archers – Abyss
It’s the only word that can describe this new Unleash the Archers album. I’ve been a fan of theirs since first hearing “General of the Dark Army” way back when, and they’ve been steadily getting better and more refined. Even knowing that, I wasn’t prepared for Abyss to blow me away like it did. This is hands-down one of the best albums I’ve heard all year, and I’d argue it’s the best in the band’s catalog by a long shot.
Abyss picks up thousands of years after the end of Apex with The Immortal awakening to a changed world under the control of The Matriarch, the previous album’s antagonist. Finding himself removed from his Apex- his mountain sanctuary- and aboard a starship or space station of some sort, he sets off to explore and eventually face down his old foe. In keeping with this new sci-fi setting, the band has massively updated their sound and in doing so have crafted their most powerful and compelling album to date.
Elements of science fantasy has always been present in the band’s lyrics (seriously, just take a look at their album covers), but Abyss marks the first time they’re truly reflected in the music itself. This is most obvious with the addition of retrowave synths, but moreover, there’s a sense of wonder and breathless anticipation in the music that’s inherent to idea of adventuring into the unknown. I can already hear some of you groaning at the prospect of facing Gloryhammer levels of power metal cheese, but trust me when I say Unleash the Archers sells it in a way that few bands can. The Immortal’s journey is played straight and serious, and for all its starry-eyed adventurous trappings, they instill each song with the gravity that’s needed to make such a concept work. There’s a melancholy undercurrent throughout that reflects the protagonist’s sense of isolation and loneliness that’s masterfully interwoven with upbeat melodies and soaring choruses. Abyss is an inversion of Apex in that regard (as well as in name and story progression), and the generally more positive tone and lack of a total downer ending makes it much easier to get into in my opinion.
This very particular atmosphere, combined with some exploration of musical ideas well outside the band’s comfort zone and general smarter songwriting, elevate this album to heights even its predecessor didn’t achieve. The title track shows off the band’s newfound penchant for the unexpected, going down when you expect them to go up, taking a major turn when you expect them to go somewhere darker, perfectly reflected in that opening synth melody. Their fondness for big arena anthems is ever intact, but “Through Stars” is the first time they’ve done it where I’ve felt it wasn’t at all clunky or shoehorned in; it always felt a little hamfisted on their older albums (even the better uses of it like on “Tonight We Ride“), but it feels natural this time. Their metalcore-tinged roots still show as well, and they’re also better integrated than ever, as the one real breakdown comes partway through “Faster Than Light” to make room for a stellar guitar melody. Perhaps the biggest departure comes in “Legacy,” which is built around a massive, bright, blackgazey chord progression and features some beautiful call and response vocals. It’s not until six tracks in with to-the-point headbanger “Soulbound” that the band truly feels like they’re back in familiar territory, and even then it’s much stronger than anything from their preceding output.
On top of the album’s flawless pacing and song-to-song variety, the performances are nigh-flawless. Brittney Slayes may not engage in as many piercing wails as she once did, but this allows for a much more nuanced and dynamic delivery that can’t be done when belting everything. The screams, previously a weak point in the band’s music, are much more robust than ever before, a far cry from the thin and frail rasp on older albums. The instrumental work is all incredibly tight, and the guitar solos in particular are clean and flashy as all hell; compare it to 2015’s Time Stands Still, and the difference is night and day. These guys have leveled up so much in the past five years it’s unreal.
At risk of sounding like I’m just jerking the band off at this point, Abyss also has some of the best production I’ve ever heard on a metal album. I’m talking less about the mix and master here (though that’s also excellent) than the actual production elements, the icing on the musical cake so to speak. The subtle touches of synth in certain places gives it a lot of texture, and that aforementioned call and response vocal line in “Legacy” was truly inspired. Everything, every additional layer of vocal harmonies or guitar leads, lend itself to making this album feel huge and cinematic, to drawing you into the world and tale that the band has created.
Every listen of Abyss has brought me goosebumps; whenever the final notes of “Afterlife” roll around, I have to sit back and bask in what I just witnessed. Unleash the Archers have crafted something truly special with this album- it is a masterpiece through and through, and one of the finest metal albums I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.