As a value-conscious consumer, I have a responsibility to spend my entertainment dollars wisely. If I can get 20 songs for the price of 10, that’s a good thing, right? That thinking, and some happy coincidence, led to this review. Since I’m always on the prowl for new music, I was perusing the Amazon MP3 store and decided to pick up the latest albums from metal band Soilwork and guitarist-extraordinaire Mattias Eklundh, both from Sweden. Since both are double albums, I thought a double-double review might be fun, giving you two reviews for the price of one click. This has the happy side effect of necessitating what may be the longest article title in HomeTechTell history (completely unverified), thereby possibly irritating editor and Wookiee-in-Chief, Dennis Burger (also completely unverified). I honestly feel like this is so big that it needs a “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” in here, just to create the proper mood.
A Smorgasbord from Sweden
As I mentioned, Mattias “IA” Eklundh is a guitar virtuoso. He is the mad genius behind the band Freak Kitchen, and is known for his unique playing style(s) and, among other things, using interesting items to create interesting guitar sounds. Notable examples are: his mouth, chopsticks, and, well, let’s just say “a woman’s D-cell-powered friend.” (Needless to say, that link is totally NSFW.) With Freak Kitchen, Eklundh crafts complicated, intelligent rock that vacillates back and forth between comedy and political grousing. Sort of like Jon Stewart with a guitar. On his solo albums (all titled under the “Freak Guitar” moniker), IA maintains his sense of humor, but removes almost of the political underpinnings, instead (lack-of-)focusing on anything and everything his heart desires. Jazz, metal, rock, latin, and classical all find a place in his latest, Freak Guitar: The Smorgasbord.
This album is a behemoth, weighing in at 40 tracks! Yes, that’s a four and a zero. IA’s eclecticism is on full display here. Things kick off right away with a couple of prototypical Eklundh instrumentals, before smacking right into a nearly unrecognizable cover of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells.” It’s not unrecognizable for its strangeness, but for its simplicity and beauty. The raucous energy of the original is replaced with a delicate acoustic arrangement, triggered by (I promise I’m not making this up) a doorbell solo, and would be quite at home on a Rodrigo y Gabriela album. The rest of this leviathan of an album progresses the same way. Bizarro tracks, a smattering of guest artists, and a couple more cover tunes: the old standard “That’s Amore,” and the made-famous-by-the-Muppets (but originally a Swedish film song), “Mah Nà Mah Nà”.
Freak Guitar: The Smorgasbord stands as a testament to Eklundh’s musicianship. He plays almost all of the instruments and also wrote and/or arranged all of the tracks. The breadth of styles displayed is truly staggering. Herein lies the only potential detriment – this album is seriously enormous. At 40 tracks, it can be a bit hard to take in one sitting. To be honest, I haven’t done it yet. I enjoy the music but, as skillfully as it is played, it’s just all a bit too much. I feel like it would have been better either cut down to one album half this size, keeping the best bits, or broken into two parts, released a few months apart (à la Coheed and Cambria’s The Afterman: Ascension and The Afterman: Descension), if for no other reason than to save the listener some exhaustion. Time will tell if I still feel this way with further listening and the passage of time.
When you hear the words “Swedish Melodic Death Metal,” do you conjure images in your head of a bunch of guys in King Diamond makeup, wearing lots of leather and spikes, trying really, really hard to look scary, but mostly looking like some dudes on their way to a Halloween party? I know I do. Soilwork completely upends that image, relying on their musicianship to make their statement, rather than silly theatrics. I honestly don’t even understand how the “Death Metal” label got applied to them. Sure, they’re a bit more extreme than say, Iron Maiden, but Soilwork, in my mind, transcend such a label, both in their music and in the themes therein. There are no odes to Satan or songs about the benefits of suicide, or any of that rubbish (or, if there are, they are so well-buried that you’d never know).
The Living Infinite, Soilwork’s ninth studio album, is a piledriver of a double album. Twenty tracks of bludgeoning metal – vigorously propelled by machine-gun drumming and chugga-chugga riffing, interspersed throughout with your FDA-recommended daily allowance of meedley-meedleys. However, they certainly earn the “melodic” part of their label, frequently pausing the sonic assault to interject smoother moments of more delicate guitar work and clean vocals, adding gobs of variation and preventing the listener from getting worn out by constant pummeling.
For those not in the know, clean vocals refer to what my mom would call a “normal singing voice,” rather than an absence of curse words (although Soilwork seems to eschew these as well). On the opposite end of the scale are screaming and “Cookie Monster vocals.” Vocalist Björn “Speed” Strid switches back-and-forth between clean vocals and glass-shards-in-the-throat singing often. Even within the confines of those categories, Strid uses a number of unique voices, adding layers of depth to the songs. To draw a parallel: remember the first time you listened to Appetite for Destruction? How it seemed like every song for the first half of the album was sung by a completely different singer? Soilwork’s music is like that. In fact, when I first encountered them, on 2002′s excellentNatural Born Chaos, I assumed that the band must have multiple singers.
The Living Infinite is a grand album, but it moves along briskly, not overstaying its welcome, despite its scale. You’ll likely be swept along as the music rises and falls, speeds and slows, and the experience will be over and you’ll find yourself itching to press Play again. I’ll admit, though, that the experience is a little strange if you listen on an iPod (or some other media player). The album is distinctly split. Part (or, Disc) One has its own progression, building momentum through its climax and finishing with a defined dénouement. Part (or, again, Disc) Two starts quietly again, and builds its own mood. It’s a bit jarring when both parts are sandwiched together in a single playlist, and I feel like taking a break to swap discs would assist the listener’s brain in separating the two parts. A minor quibble, certainly, for such an excellent, epic album.
That’s a lot of Swedish rock for one review. All in all, I would recommend both albums, although I would suggest digesting The Smorgasbord across multiple sittings. Naturally, your desire for either would depend entirely on your appetite for experimental guitar noodlings or mammoth slabs of heavy metal. If either is your thing, tie your napkin around your neck, grab your fork and knife, and dig in.
Fun fact: Mattias Eklundh contributed guitar solos to the first four Soilwork albums.