Avatar - Avatar Country - (8.5/10)
Published on February 18, 2018
Fuck, this band is weird. In today’s oversaturated musical climate, it’s quite the statement to be able to say your band is truly unique – and Sweden’s Avatar could not fit the mould of ‘unique’ more. Starting off as a bog standard melodic death metal band – in true Gothenburg fashion – around 2001, the quintet quickly began to nullify the basics of their chosen sub-genre and, by 2010, had become a genre-bending machine. Any album post-self-titled is guaranteed to mess with the listeners’ heads a little, none less than 2016’s mammoth Feathers & Flesh which took the style-jumping to an extreme over 16 tracks. New effort Avatar Country tones down the schizophrenia a little, but to just the right extent that it improves on the previous album’s formula by making everything more concise. Put simply: less is more.
Avatar Country consists of a far more reasonable ten tracks, some of which are interludes, some of which are instrumentals…and all of which contain the word ‘king’ in the title. They just had to fuck with us somehow didn’t they?! The genre-hopping is still in effect, but reined-in and more manageable. On the menu today is prog (“Legend Of The King”), country/western (“The King Welcomes You To Avatar Country”), groove metal (“King’s Harvest”), instrumental/ambient (“Silent Songs Of The King”), hymn (“Glory To Our King”), straightforward rock (“The King Wants You”), and even a spoken word-cum-comedy sketch track (“The King Speaks”) among a few other styles. The brilliance of this record is how each piece is positioned on the tracklist, allowing the whole album to flow like a journey. By the time “The King’s Palace” fades away, one is left surprisingly moved by the whole experience.
The tongue-in-cheek flavour never departs, even in the midst of the maelstrom of the heaviest tracks like “A Statue Of Our King”. Despite being the most death-oriented track on the album, the Swedes still find time for a polka section before the last chorus. Johannes Eckerström’s inimitable charisma shines as usual, but the persona of ‘psychotic ringmaster’ has also been diluted so that he fuses with the accompanists. The rest of the band have also stepped up their game, taking more prominent roles and generally matching Eckerström’s indomitable attitude. Jonas and Tim’s guitar hand-offs are inspired – producing the most quirky harmonies and textures where no one suspects, and switching between clean and distorted at the drop of a hat. I think my biggest complaint is that the tone never really reaches a full-on, thick, beefy texture, although the thin, often monophonic guitar sound is characterful.
There are far too many highlights to choose from. The hymnal opener “Glory To Our King” sets the mood absolutely perfectly; it’s grandiose with a hint of humour. But by the time track four comes crashing through your speakers, you’ve already travelled to Sweden and Texas, stylistically speaking. “King’s Harvest”, as the most straightforward and brutal number, is a sure winner for me. However, much credit is to be given to the dual ending “Silent Songs Of The King” – the first part of which is a beautifully serene piece of ambience, quickly followed by a grand chunk of melodic metal. This cancels out the quirk and hilarity of the opener and “The King Speaks”, ensuring the record closes on a noble and respectful note. If you’ve never heard of Avatar before today, this is a superb introduction to how the Swedes function. Existing Avatar fans should lap this up as both an improvement on the formula of Feathers & Flesh and their best album since Black Waltz.