What is it about the surströmning-eating cretins in the country of Sweden that makes them so great at writing melodies? From the world-conquering ABBA to the modern pop goddess Robyn, the umlaut-spouting northeners seemingly can’t stop themselves from writing their way into the hearts and the charts of people around the world. This natural inclination even influences the most extreme variants of musical exports the country has to offer. Be it black metal or cybernetic gore-grind, you know it’ll only be a matter of time before the swedes has packaged it into a technicolor extravaganza fit for the biggest outdoor festivals in Europe.
This is exactly what they did to the then-young genre of death metal in the 90s. In Flames, Dark Tranquility and At the Gates took the brutal bashings of death metal and combined it with more listener-friendly elements pillaged from NWOBHM, before gracing it with their native country’s supernatural ear for melody. Soilwork was also an integral part of that early scene, and along with the aforementioned bands they’ve forged on through the years, releasing albums at a clip while steadily becoming more accessible (notable exception is At the Gates, who even after an extended break sounds more or less like they did in ’95). For bands like In Flames and Dark Tranquility this commercialization dovetailed with a decline in the quality of their artistic statements. For Soilwork, the trajectory has looked a little different.
As a matter of fact, my favorite album of theirs was released in 2013, 15 years after their debut full-length. The Living Infinite was a flawed but incredibly engaging and ambitious venture, being as it were a double album with a run time closing up on 90 minutes. The album combined the usual blasting ferocity and sky-cleaving leads with a healthy dose of bluesy rock riffs, a sound that has been continued into the present day.
Verkligheten is cut from the same cloth as The Living Infinite, although with a more reasonable running time of 50 minutes. The tracks are still adhering to verse-chorus structures, Björn Strid is still alternating between his classic scream and soaring cleans, and the band is still chucking out hook after hook like their Swedish citizenship will be revoked if they don’t manage to rack up those streaming numbers. The production is incredibly crisp and streamlined, leaving just enough space in the mix to accommodate some baroque flights of fancy.
The intro produces a sense of occasion; pounding drums, piano and slide guitar building up an anticipation for the band to come storming in “Spectrum of Eternity”-style on the real opener, “Arrival”. This opening proves appropriate for the album in question, since most of the tracks on Verkligheten starts off with a similar configuration of atmospheric lead guitar, piano and tom hits, before blasting off into the song proper.
“Arrival” is a fine Soilwork track, the aggressive thrashing spiked with an ample helping of melodic uplift. The following couple of tracks enters more arena-oriented territory, while introducing some riffing that comes dangerously close to summon the duck-walking spirit of Angus Young. This progression reaches an unexpectedly extreme conclusion, when the verse of “The Nurturung Glance” rides in on a star-spangled riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ted Nugent record. The perplexity is quickly offset by the arrival of track number six, “When the Universe Spoke”. This track is better than any modern melodeath bop has the right to be, and is a perfect distillate of all modern Soilwork can be. From the fiery verses, to the evil Judas Priest pre-chorus, to the mother of leads rearing her head during the intro and chorus; there is no reason to not lose your shit when this jam blares out of the speakers.
The second half of the record does not scale the same heights as the first six tracks. Their commercial notions threatens to overwhelm the material on tracks such as “Stålfågel”, “Witan” and “The Wolves are Back in Town”, the latter being the biggest offender of them all. It doesn’t help that the surplus of clean vocals on Verkligheten shines a light on Strids lyrics, which seem hell-bent on communicating something to the listener, but struggle to actually puzzle out what that something might be. Add some unflattering studio touches like strings ostensibly ported from a Game of Thrones flash game on “Needles and Kin”, and the under-utilised features by Tomi Joutsen and Dave Sheldon near the end of the record, and the last 20 minutes starts to pale.
This is still an impressive effort from the swedes, and well up there as one of the better examples of big-stage melodeath done right. Even though the formula is familiar, Soilwork still shake the template up enough to make Verkligheten a mostly entertaining, sometimes engrossing listen. I don’t think this album will knock The Living Infinite down from the position as Soilwork’s best effort, mostly because of the sheer audacity of the latter. It is nonetheless very satisfying to see a band in a comfortable spot still willing to try on new costumes, pushing and tweaking familiar formulas in search of the perfect song. Out of all the formative melodeath-bands that are still operative today, Soilwork seems to find the most joy in creating.