If you're into the Swedish wave of Death Metal you obviously know of ARCH ENEMY and the importance of their contributions to the sound. They released some very influential albums back in the nineties like "Black Earth" and "Burning Bridges", back then they were often hailed as one of the best together with the usual accomplices that were IN FLAMES, DARK TRANQUILLITY, SOILWORK and more. It's a different story today; Angela Gossow's involvement is not only breeding positive vibes between long-time fans. Moreover, the band is being bombarded with "sell-out" accusations based on the recently released "Anthems Of Rebellion", which has displeased many fans.
There is one album that stands on its own; I'm referring to the somewhat estranged "Stigmata" album. Heavy and melodic, that's how I'd describe it, unbelievably intense yet very melodic and structured. This is also one of my favourite Death Metal albums in recent years because I've always been fascinated by the Amott brothers and this album particularly shows how well they work together as a guitar duo. While being Death Metal at heart "Stigmata" also leans towards more progressive song writing compared to the "in your face" Death/Thrash Metal that "Black Earth" had. Songs like "Dark Of The Sun", "Black Earth" and the nine minute milestone "Bridge Of Destiny" leave huge amounts of space for everybody to show off a bit, especially solos are coming in fast from both guitarists. ARCH ENEMY didn't sacrifice their trademarks just because they chose to include some lengthy progressive songs, you'll easily recognise the band even in those songs as well as the fast ones. There are two instrumentals; "Vox Stellarum", co written with Fredrik Nordström, is played with grand piano before the delicate melodic trademark enters and invokes a beautiful atmosphere. The other instrumental is the title track, which is really heavy and melodic with the two guitarists showing off trading swift solos and sharing some harmony leads. The only track that doesn't belong to this album is "Let The Killing Begin"; it lacks flair and catchiness and it doesn't help when Johan sounds like he has a cold.
Johan's vocals do fit the music, but there are times where I think he could have sounded better. I can understand why some people don't like his vocals, ARCH ENEMY are a Death Metal band and should have extreme vocals, I mean take Steve Tucker or Peter Tägtgren, that's extreme vocals. On the other hand I guess you could say that Liiva has his own vocal niche.
I love the brutalised sound, with Studio Fredman's mixing tools and Mr. Fredrik Nordström himself by the mixing desk, "Stigmata" has been given a devastating sound, listening to "Beast Of Man" just makes me go nuts and play along with the heaviest riffs you can imagine.
The band's original drummer, Daniel Erlandsson plays the drums only on "Beast Of Man", he had some personal problems and had to take a break from the band. The rest is played by Peter Wildoer (DARKANE), this guy is top notch, extremely varied and technical in his playing, a very accomplished drummer.
"Stigmata" is a very underrated album for reasons that are unknown to me, maybe fans didn't like to see them going into a over-the-top technical direction. For fans of Swedish Death Metal the album serves all the ingredients and is a logical choice of buy if you get your eyes on it. (Online February 5, 2004)