Label: Napalm Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
Rarely does a sequel to anything equal or exceed the original. Movie experts rank The Godfather II as such an accomplishment. The latest from power metallers UNLEASH THE ARCHERS is too.
From Vancouver, B.C., the band is stellar singer Brittney Slayes, guitarist and guttural singer Grant Truesdell, guitarist/keyboardist and guttural singer Andrew Kingsley and drummer Scott Buchanan.
‘Abyss’, due out August 21, is their fifth album and the continuation of the story of 2017’s ‘Apex’ (and a more clever title would be hard to come by; Brittney has said the former takes place on land, the latter among the stars).
To recap: In ‘Apex’, the Immortal was resurrected yet again to help the all-powerful Matriarch destroy her three sons and achieve her own immortality — one son is a politician, one a manipulative sorcerer, the third bears no sin other than that of his birth. The Immortal befriends him while taking him to his doom, but does his duty and retires back to his stasis state. It ended on a cliffhanger, with the Immortal’s last words, “Something is coming / Coming for me…”
And so here we are. We begin aptly with ‘Waking Dream’, a haunting acoustic melody, a bare wisp of humming. Just like an awakening, it happens slowly, Brittney’s delicate diction, quiet the first run-though the four mantra-like lines of lyrics, builds in intensity the second time and builds to a roar the final few times. The music, too, crescendos with heavier guitar, heavier drums, but that acoustic melody is still very much there. The repetition of the one set of lyrics is so effective in depicting the character waking, regaining strength and power, and easing you into the story to come.
The keyboard melody that ends the first track… begins the next. The title track, in perfect continuity, the bright, brilliant guitar, the effects, the keyboards and Brittney’s signature wail begin it in earnest. Few do a lead-in into a prechorus better than they do — the modulation on the slightly changed last chorus is gorgeous and her voice just takes off. Our hero is indeed awake, but he has some doubts, as the tense verses relate (“My mountain is gone, I’m surrounded by steel / The strangest of structures arises ahead” and “My path always guides me, there’s nothing to fear / Then why do I feel so immensely alone, this can’t be the end of my story”). But he is resolute and filled with wonder and hope in the chorus, as he says, and in the bridge, full of deft, light-fingered soloing, he declares himself and his mission (“I am the weapon of empires vast, Immortal is more than a name”).
‘Through Stars’ has a Queensryche feel to it, a la ‘Mindcrime’ era — it’s a transition song with a grand groove, relaxed but potent. This is our hero, still in transit, wanting more from this go-round (“Reflecting on a thousand lifetimes spent among the slain / And realize I know nothing of life beyond the blade”). In the chorus, he’s asking for, and maybe confident in, his own resolve, and in the second verse, he realizes he does have a choice (“On the edges of periphery / Hovers promise of a better way” and he concludes, “No longer will I ignore the man I’m meant to be”). The final chorus and fade-out are wonderful, because all they are, if you listen closely, is the first two words of the first two lines, drawn out and made into part of the wash of sound, giving hints of the chorus without belaboring it.
‘Legacy’ introduces a new character, the son of one of the Matriarch’s sons — he brings the Immortal to him in order to defeat her. The layering of the vocals in the verses, the repeating of the key words, adds to the feel, the propulsion of the song. There’s no distinct chorus here, an interesting change-up. The grandson, too, has doubts (“When I finally found the words / The ones I knew would wake you / To take you from her and to make you mine / Somehow all I felt was hollow”), like as she used you, so will I use you (“And you are here as servant one last time”), even if it’s to a better end. He rather hates the Immortal, too (“And as I learned to forgive you / For all you’d done”), his history of working for the Matriarch — he doesn’t like him, but he needs him. The final ‘chorus’, where the grandson promises deliverance, has Brittney’s voice rising and rising in a clarion call (“You are the answer, you are my legacy”), but then it slowly drops into her resonant lower register on the fade-out, which is such a treat and so unexpected — and a foreshadowing.
Not so fast, says the Matriarch, when she finally makes her appearance in ‘Return To Me’. She knows the grandson has taken the Immortal and she’s boasting (“Now behold my finest hour, ultimate power”), and offering the choice that’s not a choice (“Kneel before me, swear to obey / And I’ll let you live, serve for eternity”). The majesty of Brittney’s heroic voice spars with the guttural vocals to fully reveal the duality of the Matriarch’s character. The keyboards are so effective in maintaining that sci-fi feel; the drumming is spectacular, the blast beats rushing and vivid without being overwhelming. The Matriarch casually drops an intriguing line in here — “No son, you can not run” — does she use ‘son’ as a diminutive, a term of endearment, or is the Immortal actually another of her sons? Hmm…
‘Soulbound’ is the Immortal and the grandson making their escape, and it has that headlong, rushing, frantic feel to match. They are pursued by “these twisted shadows of the men I once condemned, that is, the three dead sons, and the prechorus is them arguing (think “We’ll catch you, oh no you won’t”). The second verse, though, is the real kicker, the Immortal wanting to “End their addiction to the thrall once and for all”, even though he “refuse(s) to see they can’t be saved”, but he realizes he’s telling then to break free when he can’t do it himself (“But who am I to be their savior, slave to time / When I am doomed to be in chains for all my life”). This is great storytelling and marks this as a deep, thoughtful album.
With ‘Faster Than Light’ comes the confrontation. They’ve run as far as they can go and she is on them, they cannot escape (“Through systems I will never know / And yet we still have nowhere to go”). The title reflects the frenetic, hunted pace of the verses, but the chorus turns legato and hopeful-sounding even in the face of annihilation. There are intriguing changes in perspective — “Fly to forget your past, to move on at last”, the grandson says, perhaps, “Fly to forgive my past, to move on at last”, the Immortal responds. There’s a point of transcendence where they might both be asking, “Why do I not turn and fight? And see if I somehow might set myself free / Who do I feel so alive? As if suddenly I somehow find I’m where I should be?”
‘The Wind That Shapes The Land’ is, at over 8 minutes, the longest track, and it’s filled with all the drama and emotion of the pivotal point in the action. The beginning has the Immortal tired of running and steeling himself to face the Matriarch, realizing that he can make the cycle end by sacrificing himself if need be and welcoming it (“Somehow I find myself standing on the edge of / Something that I desperately need … No more crying for the things I can’t change”). He’s pleading for that release, but his courage is tenuous (“I won’t wait for long / I was never your / Slave for all eternity”). Brittney’s voice echoes his internal struggle, worn and tired at the start, but building as he girds himself for battle.
We get our happy ending (“I see the clouds are gone / The storm that raged is quiet once again”), but at a cost. “I’ve nothing without sacrifice”, mourns the Immortal, but you could take that both ways — if he is indeed the fourth son, he mourns his mother and what he had to do, but he also mourns the grandson who is the innocent bystander.
‘Carry The Flame’ is a duet with Brittney and Andrew (he playing the grandson) and it is indeed a passing of the flame, as it were. The music is bright, optimistic, the joyous solo at the end putting such a nice point on the fact that nothing good is achieved without sacrifice. The Immortal is charged with “bring(ing) hope to those who have none” and it’s such a cool twist when the grandson says, “But I need you to remember, the power was in you all along” and the Immortal counters later: “But how I can I remember, when the power came from you all along.” It’s these little lyric twists and turns that make this album such a treat.
‘Afterlife’, the finale and another longer track, segues a majestic, stately beginning into a lovely orchestral section that is perfectly and judiciously used. Our hero has resolved to “right the wrongs far behind” to “watch over those in despair”, his “afterlife” being rebirth, not death. But he is his mother’s son after all and he is tempted — the guttural voice reminds him, “But with such power, think how you could rule” and “Why would you choose to serve when you could be master of all.” He’s not perfect, he still has mommy issues — the darkness of the bridge shows he still has work to do on himself, making for the perfect open-ended ending. Brittney’s full-throated ‘whoas’ in the ending melody fade to just her and some sparse low-end drumming. The orchestra then gently takes the melody to itself, with the sweep of the strings, the warmth of the horns, the delicacy of the final flute — it’s so damn satisfying.
These songs of ‘Abyss’ are so memorable; they just sear into your brain immediately. There’s complex character building and sophisticated storytelling — there’s so much that goes on in just a line or two. It’s less dense and more immediate than its predecessor, and so emotional. The two albums stand together and apart, as perfectly paired as a duology can be.