Stabbing the Drama
ew concepts have produced as much contention in metal circles as melody. While pop music embraces melody, depending on hummable hooks for sales, metal seems to have a love-hate relationship with it. Curiously, controversy has never really surrounded melodic guitar riffs—in fact, the bigger the hook, the better. It’s melodic vocals that cause problems.
On one hand, classic metal vocalists such as Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson are very much singers. On the other hand, to a new generation of fans raised on death metal growls, black metal shrieks, and Phil Anselmo’s screams, “clean” (sung) vocals often trigger cries of “sellout.” The rise of American metal in 2004 was arguably due to a serious injection of melody, as clean choruses and twin guitar harmonies became de rigueur. Metal purists wrung their hands over the resulting MTV exposure, journalists coined the term “metalcore” for the phenomenon, and Hot Topic laughed all the way to the bank.
None of this would have been possible without the influence of Swedish melodic death metal. Along with peers like In Flames, At the Gates, and Dark Tranquillity, Soilwork helped usher in a new style of metal that took double-time Iron Maiden and Judas Priest riffs and topped them with death metal vocals. The result was a combination of melody and brutality that set the blueprint for American bands today like Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage.
Soilwork’s first two albums, Steelbath Suicide and The Chainheart Machine, hewed to the Swedish formula: spectacular riffs, melodic solos, thrashy drums, and screamed vocals. But, starting with 2001’s A Predator’s Portrait and continuing through Natural Born Chaos, clean vocals started appearing in increasing amounts, with guitar heroics decreasing in inverse proportion. The transformation was complete on 2003’s Figure Number Five, which was chock-full of clean vocals. The focus had shifted from guitars to vocals, atypical for a genre in which vocals are often unintelligible and act merely as sonic texture.
“Stabbing the Drama” takes the sound of “Figure Number Five” and strips it down further. Every song but one features screamed vocals and sung choruses. The choruses are mile-wide hooks, the kind that lodge in the head for days. While the guitars reliably do the chug-and-machine-gun thing, the riffs are fairly basic and serve mainly as background for the vocals. The few solos that appear are brief and almost keyboard-like, never soaring into the air guitar-inducing heights of Soilwork’s earlier work. The whole package is efficient and sleek, if a bit unchallenging.
Hooky choruses, instrumentation as background, and compact songwriting are trademarks of pop music, not metal. In this respect, Soilwork have lost much of the danger and excitement that characterized their first few albums. But while “Stabbing the Drama” isn’t likely to make it onto the radio soon (American radio, that is—the album has hit no. 14 in the Swedish charts, and no. 52 in Germany), this may be one of those rare cases where a band finds its voice, only to lose its edge.