Album: Hurricanes and Halos
Label: Nuclear Blast
It seems like only yesterday when Sweden’s Avatarium captured my attention with their mix of doom metal and vintage rock on their previous album, The Girl with the Raven Mask (2015). Hurricanes and Halos follows it up just a year and a half later, despite songwriter Leif Edling‘s serious illness, and is already the band’s third full-length album since its formation in 2012. Although the cover art is stylistically similar to the self-titled debut from 2013, a few winds of change have blown over the Avatarium camp: Edling still writes most of the songs, but he’s given up his position as the bassist to Mats Rydström, and vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith and guitarist Marcus Jidell have also contributed a couple of tunes.
Lead single “Into the Fire/Into the Storm” kicks things off with a bang – Rickard Nilsson‘s relentless organ playing evokes the late Jon Lord of Deep Purple, and Smith almost manages to sound like a female Ian Gillan. Although the song is compact with no traces of doom and as such a good single, it manages to squeeze in a tempo change in the middle, which makes it more interesting than your average preview track. That said, it’s “The Starless Sleep” that’s the clearest hit on the album – good luck trying not to get that chorus stuck in your head! There’s also some nice layering going on with subtle acoustic guitars and tambourine, and Jidell tops it all off with a tasty solo.
After this accessible pair of tracks, the album takes an experimental turn with some new sounds. “Road to Jerusalem” is the album’s crown: a psychedelic and exotic song that I imagine would sound amazing live with the band jamming out and doing an extended instrumental break towards the end. However, I’m less excited about “Medusa Child” and its jarring transitions – I find the child vocals mildly irritating, and the chorus where they are heard comes out of nowhere and is a bit of an anticlimax after a really promising and omínous verse with howling feedback guitars. A brave sidestep for sure, but ultimately not a successful experiment.
“The Sky at the Bottom of the Sea” takes us back to the 70s hard rock vibes heard at the beginning of the record – it’s like Avatarium’s response to Uriah Heep’s “Easy Livin'”, once again featuring catchy melodies and fierce handling of the organ, as well as some cool wah-wah guitar. Now that’s how to do it, Kirk Hammett! “When Breath Turns to Air” is a 180-degree turn from all the rocking; a jazzy ballad dedicated to Jidell’s late father. You can hear a sense of loss and yearning in the fragile guitar playing, and Smith’s vocal delivery is smooth as velvet, like a mother singing a lullaby. “A Kiss (from the End of the World)” is probably the doomiest song on the album, but even this one begins with an acoustic intro and ends on a mellower note. Finally, the instrumental title cut closes the album like an epilogue of sorts with its quiet and minimalistic guitars.
The most striking thing about Hurricanes and Halos is how doom metal has taken the backseat, while the 70s influences are behind the wheel, the songs are catchier, and the non-metal experiments of Girl with the Raven Mask continue. While I can imagine this coming as a disappointment to a certain portion of the fanbase, I think the new style and stronger melody lines support Jennie-Ann Smith’s versatile vocals better. Her singing has been exceptional on every album, but it feels like on Hurricanes and Halos she finally gets to use her voice to its full potential, and her sultry and slightly husky tone is without a doubt one of the best and most unique in today’s heavy music. Fortunately the rest of the band are not statists either: Marcus Jidell’s guitar playing is more evocative than ever, and Rickard Nilsson often steals the show with his rocking organ. Jidell’s work behind the mixing desk is also worth an honorable mention, as the production is nicely earthy and organic, and there’s even room for dynamics despite the broad layering.
Since Hurricanes and Halos is more immediate and accessible than its precedessors, it’ll be interesting to see how it stands the test of time. The album is nicely compact, but it’s a pity that the song I’m not really into (“Medusa Child”) happens to be the longest one at 9 minutes. Anyway, my overall impression is that Avatarium are on the right track and continue to improve, which makes them one of the best new bands of the past 5 years.
Rating: 8½/10, 4 stars
1. Into the Fire/Into the Storm
2. The Starless Sleep
3. Road to Jerusalem
4. Medusa Child
5. The Sky at the Bottom of the Sea
6. When Breath Turns to Air
7. A Kiss (from the End of the World)
8. Hurricanes and Halos