Written by: Beaston Lane
Dear readers, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Avatar Country anymore. As the world grapples with the caustic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and our favorite artists are screwed over by penny-pinching corporations, an island run by fun-loving metal maniacs sure sounds like a great place to be--but that’s not where Avatar takes us on their highly anticipated 8th LP. Hunter Gatherer finds these bombastic Swedish metallers in that bleak headspace so many of us have to confront every morning as we contemplate the increasingly volatile future. Gone are the fables and legends of Avatar’s past, replaced with the nightmares of a planet in crisis. Robust and aggressive, Hunter Gatherer is the sound of one band’s cleansing discharge of years of pent-up anger and anxiety.
A brief listen to lead single “Silence in the Age of Apes” will make abundantly clear the melancholic message of this new album: humans are still playing with forces we’ve barely begun to understand. Throughout the track, percussive guitar riffing and harsh vocals impart that the only way for humanity to avoid its destruction is to keep accelerating, whatever the cost. Stylistically, the song leans into “For the Swarm” territory, but the fruits of a new songwriting approach are still evident. By placing this song as the album opener and lead single, Avatar immediately subverts the listener’s expectations while exceeding them. For the most part, the band succeeds in walking this tightrope of familiarity and originality through each of the remaining nine tracks.
“Colossus” saunters into your ears on the electronic momentum of “Silence in the Age of Apes”, but soon explodes into a simplistic, ruthless breakdown riff. However, this pattern isn’t drawn out into the verses, which lean on bass-backed spoken vocals that illustrate how humanity creates its own monsters. The steady flow from calm to catchy to heavy keeps the track fresh, allowing Tim Öhrström’s dystopian solo to interject at the perfect moment. Sounding like the sonic summary of Blade Runner, this solo is as tasteful as tasteful gets, further establishing another album-wide trait: phenomenal lead work. Songs like “Colossus” would be strong even without excellent leads, but Öhrström truly elevates the track with his ear-piercing bends and enthralling progressions.
Next up are “A Secret Door” and “God of Sick Dreams,” which move the lyrical themes away from technology and towards psychological strife. These tracks directly contrast each other, with “A Secret Door” opening with poignant whistling from Corey Taylor and “God of Sick Dreams” beginning with speedy pull-off riffs on the low strings. The former employs atmospheric tremolo-picking and clean guitar passages amid palm-muted grooves, and it’s also the first track on the album to feature a dual lead passage rather than a traditional solo. “God of Sick Dreams” shares that trait, but it differs greatly in tone. Constructed like the nightmare it describes, the track is never calm. Johannes’ growling truly shines here, pulling you further and further into the mad world of his own sick dreams. Each of these songs emphasize different aspects of Avatar, throwing some curveballs into the runtime that end up paying off.
From there, we enter the section of Hunter Gatherer consisting of six of the seven tracks which weren’t heard until release day. “Scream Until You Wake” kicks off this swath of fresh songs with a Rammstein-esque intro that morphs into understated narrative verses. A lyrical synthesis of “A Secret Door” and “God of Sick Dreams,” this track deals with the anxiety of being alone with the framing of a nightmare. It’s also arguably the most radio-friendly offering on the album, boasting a catchy-as-hell hook and an ear-pleasing composition similar to hits from bands like Slipknot. Jonas Jarlsby (a.k.a. The King) has a killer solo at the conclusion of the first chorus chock-full of pinch harmonics and backed by relentless staccato chugging, giving “Scream Until You Wake” another dimension.
Introducing itself with a monstrous cyclical riff, “Child” yields yet another curveball as a folky verse section sets the scene of an 1800s town burying a child’s “sick” mother alive. This unusual song gives “Colossus” and “A Secret Door” a run for their money when it comes to bipolarity; a jarring shout bleeds into a gothic chorus, soon giving way to the destructive first riff. Even though it’s not lengthy when it comes to runtime, “Child” is one of the most expansive songs on the album--a hidden gem which even features a bass lead from Henrik! Its successor, “Justice,” is a standard Avatar headbanger. Groovy verses melt into vocally-focused choruses which are memorable but not astonishing. However, a solo which clearly descended from 2016’s Feathers & Flesh spices things up, setting up an intriguing spoken word passage. “Justice” isn’t anything outstanding, but it’s a banger that gets the adrenaline flowing.
With all that adrenaline and angst built up, you’d think that the next track was going to push the heaviness further. Wrong. “Gun” is the most unexpected moment on Hunter Gatherer--a formal piano ballad with no build up to a heavy section, just Johannes and the piano. This change of pace is ironically abrasive, with all the fist-pumping emotions from “Child” and “Justice” molded into pure sorrow. “Gun” is well-executed, yet a tad underwhelming; after all, past atmospheric album breaks like “Tower” from Hail the Apocalypse had more complex compositions with more pleasing conclusions. To its merit, the absence of a satisfying musical resolution embodies the uncertainty and vulnerability Johannes so painfully describes in this soliloquy. This ballad won’t please everyone, but have no fear--your thirst for some savagery will be sated with another switch-up.
Like an armada of the most terrifying alien ships you’ve ever seen speeding towards the Earth with weapons firing, “When All but Force Has Failed” shoots through the speakers with an otherworldly assault of neck-snapping force. With a runtime of just under three minutes, this bite-size tornado of metal goodness manages to be one of the most impactful songs on the entire record. Every band member is unleashed, with the guitars laying down blazing hot riffs, Johannes spitting out words like a gatling gun, and John Alfredsson contributing a nasty extended drum fill.
After the surprising combo of “Gun” and “When All but Force Has Failed,” the most unique song on Hunter Gatherer manifests to warp your expectations one last time. Rolling in on a riff Revolver aptly described as “skull-splitting,” the finale entitled “Wormhole” is full of bending, low-tuned madness that fits the image of a collapsing anomaly better than a glass slipper. Corey Taylor gets a writing credit on the pre-choruses, and they work phenomenally well with the overwhelming heaviness that surrounds them. The twelve listens or so that I’ve given this album have revealed this mind-melting number to be one of if not the best track Hunter Gatherer has to offer, making “Wormhole” a perfect closer.
From open to close, the progression of this album is definitely odd, but the closing section of the album is a testament to Avatar’s meticulous approach in assembling a tracklist. Hiding songs like “Child” and “Wormhole” in the second half allows them to stand out on their own merits, ensuring that you’ll be just as excited to hear side B as you were for side A.
Perhaps Hunter Gatherer’s greatest weakness isn’t related to what’s on the album, but what isn’t. Few songs feel epic in the sense of their structure or composition, and after albums which included moments of pure bombast like “Legend of the King” and “Use Your Tongue,” this new record doesn’t introduce any more. Where Avatar Country went for fewer songs with more musical wizardry, Hunter Gatherer goes for more songs with more brevity. Nothing’s wrong with this album, but there was definitely room for something even more grand.
When compared to Avatar’s beloved last four albums, Hunter Gatherer is able to stand proudly on its own thanks to continued musical excellence and the band’s willingness to once again step out of its own niche. Some may call it a “return to form” after two conceptual endeavors, but I would argue that Avatar have done more than go back to a place where heaviness is the law--they’ve taken an old formula and improved upon it, packing all the experience of the last decade into their most accessible effort yet. While there aren’t mountains of lore to dig into as you dissect the lyrics, there’s something liberating in the fact that Hunter Gatherer truly speaks for itself. It’s brutal, captivating, and unpredictable--representative of a band that won’t settle for anything less than greatness.
Avatar - Hunter Gatherer was released Aug. 7th, 2020 from Century Media
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We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!