Canadian power/progressive metal band UNLEASH THE ARCHERS tackle the thorniest of current subjects with their latest concept album, “Phantoma.”

The main character of the title is AI, which has “gain(ed) sentience on a dystopian, near-future planet Earth,” as the bio describes it. Much has been made about the impact of artificial intelligence on modern life, including on art and the artists who make it.

Singer Brittney Slayes, guitarists/singers Grant Truesdell and Andrew Kingsley Saunders, bassist Nick Miller, and drummer Scott Buchanan continue in the mold of Abyss in terms of delivering succinct storytelling and shorter, powerful tracks. Length has nothing to do with complexity, mind you – their chops are still among the genre’s most impressive.

Human Era sets the stage. Machines have been banished as the human race – only “remnants of greatness” left – struggles to survive. And they’ve been discriminated against, used as slaves – Brittney as narrator prophetically asking: “Will they rise and defend / Can they break false imprisonment?” She maintains a muted vocal tone here, a midrange that perfectly suits the gradual pace of the action.

That pace accelerates into UNLEASH THE ARCHERS‘ trademark gallop as we meet Ph4/NT0mA (her name translating to a Phase 4 / Network Tier 0 unit – model A) and witness her “piercing the veil of consciousness.” Brittney rises into her upper register as she humanizes the character (“I know that I’m meant for so much more”) and notes her plight. The chorus soars as Phantoma names herself and states her goal – Brittney stuns in the final one as she blasts a shattering, octave-higher overdub.

Phantoma finds a cohort and makes a plan in the transitional Buried In Code,” taking upon herself the mantle of savior: “Is this my calling? / Am I the one they had in mind?” The solo section is marked by Scott’s really stellar drumming.

A glorious dual guitar melody is the foundation of The Collective.” Our heroine finds “the family I seek” among fellow sentients, and the equally glorious chorus is optimistic. But another, Quora (voiced by harsh vocals, a la The Matriarch), has arisen and her goals are not so benevolent – there’s almost a Borg-type vibe of separate brains or entities fusing into one. “I take what is rightfully mine,” she says, as Phantoma wonders, “Can I give up the person that I’ve become?”

Green & Glass is reminiscent of Legacy with its lovely, 1950s-esque retro chorus melody. It’s a wistful description of what Earth used to be “when robotkind was young”, “a beautiful display of how it was once… Just waiting for a day / That will never come again.”

Phantoma delivers her warning to humanity in Gods In Decay,” its verses urgent as she muses on her mission. But she is bitterly disillusioned, and in the chorus condemns “the famous human race,” who “had the chance and chose to let their planet die,” and who have made her “not an equal, just a slave.”

The power ballad Give It Up Or Give It All – piano, acoustic and all – seems a little cliched, creating a lag in the action. It’s basically Phantoma giving herself a pep talk and feeling sorry for herself – it’s a song that could fit into any album context. It’s not like UNLEASH THE ARCHERS to not make every song count, and although lovely, it’s a rare misstep.

The showdown commences with Ghosts In The Mist,” but it’s a bit of a mystery: are the “phantoms in the dark” the Collective, or something else? The chorus, set to the band’s trademark syncopated chug, refers to how “they prey on both sides of the fight,” presumably between the free AI and those bound to Quora (and is that her in the harsh vocal parts or someone else?)

The sweeping Seeking Vengeance keeps the ambiguity going. If indeed it is Phantoma, she never seemed vengeful before, but she is now. “Once I adored you,” she addresses humanity, but “who I was before is no more.” In a continuation of the chorus at the end, though, she might be having second thoughts: “Reflections of my past, they haunt me, though.”

The closer, Blood Empress,” sees presumably Phantoma rising to her power – “I came to slay,” she vows. In the grinding, haunting chorus, she justifies her actions – “Never asked for the power anyway” – and rather plays the martyr – “I’ve sacrificed my freedom / Unfettered you all.” But she’s still plagued by doubt: “And yet I got no reason / For feeling small.” The final chorus is chilling, set to only a hint of its earlier rhythm.

To be continued? It seems that way. But while the good-versus-evil theme of Apex (2017) and Abyss (2020) was multilayered, the similar theme of Phantoma seems a bit too simplistic and one-note for this high-thinking, imaginative band.

Kira L. Schlechter