Sweden’s Avatar have been slinging their brand of rock and roll for 15 years, but only started to achieve any success in the USA with 2012’s Black Waltz, their fourth album and over a decade into their career. 2014’s Hail The Apocalypse, while excellent, failed to grant them a huge spike in popularity – although other bands have noticed their work ethic and talent, and picked them up for quite a few high-profile tours. In that context, 2016’s Feathers & Flesh feels a little bit like an intentional attempt to rebrand Avatar. It is certainly far different than anything the already eclectic band has done. Certain parts of the album work and certain parts do not, but it’s a brave, ambitious collection of tunes and very well might be the key to helping Avatar finally break into the A-list of modern rock bands. [columns] [column size=”1/3″]
Album Title: Feathers & Flesh
Release Date: 13 May 2016
Label: Entertainment One
Avatar have always blended a very theatrical visual element – all dressed like sinister sideshow circus performers – catchy, immediate hooks, extreme metal growls and snarls, and melodramatic, almost operatic clean vocals that often point directly back to the carnival-esque theme. That combination was instrumental in their breakout song “Smells Like A Freakshow,” and all of those elements are in play here, as well as added elements of fantasy-influenced power metal, Iron Maiden, oddball 90s alternative, and perhaps most striking, classic medieval songwriting of the sort you might hear at a Renn Faire. It results in a schizophrenic listening experience, often morphing several times mid-song to cram in every last piece the band felt like adding. It’s the kitchen sink approach in full force, and it works more often than not. To top it all off, the album is a sprawling, 14-track concept album that tells a story. Every physical copy of the album comes with an accompanying graphic novel that complements the story. It should be noted that these were unavailable for review, so it’s very possible said graphic novel helps complete the album in a way I cannot attest to here. Avatar have embraced excess in every way on Feathers & Flesh, and your tolerance for that will determine your taste for this album.
Opener “Regret” is a drifting, morose intro that explodes into a burst of sludgy classic metal at the end, followed by “House Of Eternal Hunt,” a song that hits almost every element thrown into the album. Starting with a very New Wave Of British Heavy Metal feel – the song begins with a lengthy guitar solo and features a second one midway through – frontman Johannes Eckerstrom delivers multiple vocal styles (gruff yet operatic, throat-shredding screams, soft, lullaby-like crooning, and a mid-range melodic delivery shockingly similar to Serj Tankian, all things he employs throughout the album) over a fairly happy sounding tune that nevertheless is hard-charging and anthemic. Drummer John Alfredson runs wild over even the lighter parts with frantic double-kick work. It feels disjointed, but it also feels right, like this chimera of sounds is exactly what the band intends. Lead single “The Eagle Has Landed” proves that feeling is not a fluke, starting and ending with a playful, folky acoustic riff that bookends massive sludge riffs, wild screams throughout the verses, and a very haunted-carnival-esque melodic hook. “New Land” is a bit lighter and more radio-friendly, but also feels very much like the rock opera score to a spirited Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Avatar prove they can manipulate mood like masters, as even when Eckerstrom bursts into anguished screams, it still sounds bright and cheerful.
“Tooth, Beak, & Claw” features more of Eckerstrom’s screaming, this time over a metal-ized… surf riff? Alright then. It works better than it should, which is a testament to the excellent guitar work of dual axemen Tim Ohrstrom and Jonas Jarlsby, who goes by ‘Kungen.’ “For The Swarm” was the first teaser released for the album, a 2-minute parade of buzzy, System Of A Down style moshrock. “Fiddler’s Farewell” follows with a gentle, mournful tune, but it lacks any of the hooks the previous songs have relied upon. “One More Hill” is probably the best song here, and also the strangest. The verses are a Primus-y, bass-driven creature featuring spoken-word vocals. The pre-chorus morphs into one of the heaviest pieces of music on the entire album before shifting again for the biggest, cheesiest, hookiest power metal chorus the band is capable of. Eckerstrom’s clean vocals here are remarkable, hitting higher and more clearly than ever before. It’s certainly not “radio-friendly,” but if chosen for radio I could see this becoming the band’s biggest hit.
“Black Waters” is where the album starts to struggle. The swampy blues lick is interesting as yet another influence added to the melting pot, but it’s not particularly memorable. And Eckerstrom uses a weird vocal approach that quivers a bit too much to sound good, adding a baritone vibrato to everything that overwhelms the song. The chorus riff is cool, but Alice In Chains did it better 20 years ago. “Night Never Ending” is another mediocre experiment. The music is triumphant and cinematic, but the vocals are sunny and the melody is saccharine. The end result sounds like Andrew WK fronting Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The Thin Lizzy inspired guitar solo is pretty sweet, though. “Pray The Sun Away” is, like One More Hill, built on a foundation of Henrik Sandelin’s bass, although the verses feel like Pantera attempting power metal, the chorus is straight up operatic. Closing trio “When The Snow Lies Red,” “Raven Wine,” and “Sky Burial” seem to be a suite, with the former being a sludgy but forgettable miss, the middle tune featuring a menacing, prominent jazzy bassline that winds through an otherwise bland song, and the latter being a funeral dirge complete with organ, strings, church bells, and a martial yet understated drum beat. None of them work particularly well as individual tracks, but they succeed in feeling like a melancholy finale.
It’s very, very hard to know whether Avatar in general, and especially Feathers & Flesh in particular, will appeal to people. This album is unlike any other released this year, and the songs cannot be separated from their intention as a concept album. Taken at face value, any one of these songs could either be gloriously bizarre, or so avant-garde it becomes utterly offputting. As an album, Feathers & Flesh works and works incredibly well, and possibly more-so, with the inclusion of the graphic novel. As a collection of songs, it does OK, depending on your taste. As music to listen to casually, it is probably too strange and wacky to appeal to many people. But whatever else, it’s easy to say this: Avatar are not averse to taking very, very big chances, and I hope the reward is equally vast.