posted on 5/2012 By:
Since his unceremonious ouster from the seminal Nihilist, Johnny Hedlund has led Unleashed through eleven studio albums in twenty-three years. They’ve always consciously stood a few steps away from their Swedish compatriots – avoiding the Stockholm guitar tone of Dismember, Entombed and Grave and incorporating Viking themes in their thrashing brutality. They’ve also shown remarkable consistency throughout, releasing two classics up front and then soldiering through ‘til now with only the one well-noted stumble in 2002’s Hell’s Unleashed and a bit of a growing pain in its follow-up, Sworn Allegiance.
But though every critical interpretation of their catalog forever hinges upon that consistency, the characterization of Unleashed as "the band that never really changes" is both unequivocally true, slightly incorrect and also a bit belittling, because even as they’re still pretty much the Unleashed they’ve always been, they did change once, for the worse, and there’s nonetheless something of a very slow and very measured forward motion since that low-water Hell. Between then and now, Unleashed has grown slightly stronger with each record, and Odalheim continues that trend. They’re improving upon their formula, but not so much through actual progression as through simple practiced repetition. They’re not expanding or altering their sound, but they are refining it.
Thematically, Odalheim is a conceptual piece – it picks up where As Yggdrasil Trembles ended, with the end of the life on Earth, and it begins with “Fimbulwinter,” the description of the titular three-year ice age. From the frozen wastes, a new era begins and the warriors of Odalheim arise, and through the remainder of the disc, they pretty much march all over the globe – from North America (“Vinland”) to South America (“Rise Of The Mayan Warrior”) back to England and Ireland (“By Celtic And British Shores,” which paraphrases the same famous Winston Churchill speech that opens Iron Maiden’s Live After Death) and then through France and into Italy (“The Soil Of Our Fathers”) and finally to “Germania.” There is much marching on Odalheim, many exhortations for warriors to rise and battalions to gather, much fighting and bloodshed and pillaging. But then again, it is an Unleashed album, after all…
On a positive note, in continuing the storyline of Yggdrasil, even with the slightly repetitious calls to rise and gather and fight, at least Unleashed is playing to its primary thematic strength – songs about Vikings and battles. In the past, they had a tendency to drop in some lunk-headed lyric extolling the virtues of metal or espousing some hardcore-esque tough-guy shtick, neither of which is unacceptable but neither of which is particularly brilliant. But, when you’re the kings of Viking death metal, if you just write death metal songs about Vikings and warriors and such, then everyone goes home happy. And that’s just what they’ve done here…
Musically, Odalheim is also exactly what you’d expect – no-frills death metal. Hedlund’s growling is clearly intelligible and still biting after all these years, switching between his deeper growl and higher snarl. The riffs alternate between epic tremolo-picked melodies and chunkier moments, with early standouts in the main motif / chorus riff of “Fimbulwinter,” which is nearly blackened in its icy beauty, and in the similar blast-driven melodies and thrash riffs of “White Christ.” ("White Christ" is the translation of the Viking word for Jesus – I learned something from this record. It’s educational, kids.) There are enough melodic touches nestled amongst the trademark primal death to keep things interesting and, at times, downright catchy, and Odalheim boasts a strong set of well-crafted songs, individually as good and collectively better than those of any Unleashed album since the earliest days.
After all the marching and fighting and rising, it's hard to avoid the fact that Odalheim is still an Unleashed record, for all that entails, and yet it’s one that shows the band actually taking baby-steps towards better by ever-so-slightly sharpening their blunt-force attack and by avoiding a few earlier pitfalls. Odalheim is straightforward and well-executed death metal about Viking warriors (well-)executing most everyone in sight. How can you not like that?
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As Yggdrasil Trembles