About a year or so ago I first started getting into the classic Swedish death metal scene. I had always been aware of it and the band’s associated with it in the early 90s who are now considered legends of death metal, as well as the overall extreme metal scene in Sweden. However I had never really got round the listening to any of those bands so the time came and I thought I’d give it a try. I was blown away by the sheer aggression, the punky attitude, and of course the world famous sound that is one of the scene’s defining elements (i.e. the scuzzy guitars amped up and distorted to the max). Bands like Entombed, Dismember and Carnage…I gradually set out to buy a selection of their classic albums and I’m still loving every minute of those records. Another band however is a vital part of the classic Swedish death metal scene – Unleashed.
I think I fell in love with Unleashed’s 1991 debut Where No Life Dwells the most (yet I’ve still not been able to procure a copy for my collection…yet!) largely because it was rather different to their peers. The sound was thicker, darker and heavier yet had a mysterious coldness about it, more akin to the rising force that was the Norwegian black metal scene at the time (also emphasised by the grim cold monochrome artwork which came to be a staple of the black metal scene). I also love the difference in the lyrical content in comparison to Unleashed’s contemporaries – there’s a lot more variety as opposed to the over violence and gore that’s always been a key lyrical theme in death metal. There was also hints on Where No Life Dwells towards the Viking/Norse mythology based lyrical themes which have become popular these days given the rise of a band like Amon Amarth – in fact it could be argued that Unleashed were the first death metal band to include lyrics based on Viking mythology alongside more black metal-esque bands like Bathory and Enslaved. Future albums from Unleashed would then start to solidify this kind of lyrical theme.
Fast forward to the present day in 2015 and Unleashed are back with their 12th studio album – Dawn of the Nine. The album is the next chapter in a saga following their previous album, the critically acclaimed Odalheim, which tells the story of Ragnarök (the great battle at the end of the world and the subsequent regeneration of the world as told in Norse mythology) and what happens in the world following it’s events. The repopulated Midgard (Earth – the world as we know it) by the survivors Ragnarök faces the threat of Christianization and elimination of their traditions and the warriors of Midgard set out to fight against the murderous Christian soldiers who have slain their kin and destroyed their way of life. Odalheim (meaning “inherited world”, the name of the post-Ragnarök world) ends with the warriors of Midgard standing on a Scandinavian battlefield about to fight to reclaim their land and way of life when an unknown army approaches from over the horizon to enter the fray…
Dawn of the Nine continues where the story left off, and Unleashed’s soundtrack to compliment the story is perfectly fitting. The songs themselves, Like with Odalheim, are brilliant as standalone tracks as well as a sonic counterpart to accompany the story. The first track “A New Day Will Rise” is a great opener with it’s catchy riffing. It storms straight into the listener’s ears at a galloping pace though in comparison to Odalheim, it is a little more subdued but this isn’t a bad thing. It serves as a gradual build up to the rest of the album making a great introduction to the remainder of the story. Ending on a short clean passagae, “A New Day Will Rise” segues straight into a more upbeat “They Came to Die” which is again, chock full of catchy riffing. The increase in pace is definitely a headbanger and the perfectly performed blastbeats are sure to invoke flailing hair at many a gig in the future. “They Came to Die” also features some more melodic elements only hinted at in “A New Day Will Rise” which sit well above the heavy riffing and blasting drums.
The next track “Defenders of Midgard” (recently released on the Nuclear Blast YouTube channel as a teaser for the album) is a little slower in pace however this enhances the heaviness of the riffing in my opinion. It must also be said at this point that the bass is earth shattering on Dawn of the Nine, and is particularly showcased in tracks like “Defenders of Midgard”. It has a satisfying rumble sure to shake the foundations of your building of residence or concert venue in which Unleashed is performing. The overall pace and more sparse riffing, in addition to the booming bass overall creates a much moodier feel to the album which, when coupled with the brief clean outro to the track creates a sense of built-up tension before bursting into the next track. “Where is Your God Now?” (the first track released from the album in the form of a lyric video) is a true storming mosh pit rager. The track literally explodes into a flurry of intense black metal-style blasting which is replicated several times throughout the track. The main verse riff is unbelievably catchy and never fails to get me thrashing about my living room. That seems to be the key with Unleashed’s riffing on Dawn of the Nine – the riffs are somewhat simple overall, with little melodic ideas in places (and blackened ones in others) but the music is undeniably catchy. It’s a testament to Unleashed’s expert songwriting power and they are truly the masters of their craft. Following “Where is Your God Now?” shows Dawn of the Nine returning to a more mid-paced moody territory with “The Bolt Thrower”. The riffing again like “A New Day Will Rise” seems a little more subdued, especially in comparison to stormers like “Where is Your God Now?” but it’s not to a negative effect. It serves well as a tension builder between tracks to move the story forward. A song like “The Bolt Thrower” showcases more sides to Unleashed’s style adding more doomy Black Sabbath-esque moments (especially with a superfast Tony Iommi-style guitar trill technique) which compliments the low growling vocals and pounding drums well.
Beginning the second half of the album is another explosive rager with “Let the Hammer Fly”. This track features more thrashing drums and simple riffing but it’s catchy and showcases more of the band’s melodic side in places. “Let the Hammer Fly” also showcases yet another facet to Unleashed’s style with a slower marching riff in the middle of the song which contrasts well with the main riffing. It also adds further tension and mystery with some clean guitar arpeggios on top of the crushing heaviness before launching immediately back into the raging verse riffs. The end of the song demonstrates a more interesting experiment in sound with an atmospheric soundscape idea showing a brief “calm before the storm” before the next track. Yet another storming number is presented in “Where Churches Once Burned” with an almost constant blastbeat driving the main portion of the song that passes by at incredible pace. The riffing again remains relentlessly catchy and features some more black metal-style ideas in places adding extra depth to the music, yet all of this aggression remains endlessly enjoyable and digestible. Yet another clean passage is presented with some tense atmospheric clean guitar arpeggios – it adds to the epic feel of the album and gives it a somewhat cinematic quality, like you could imagine this element to Unleashed’s music as part of a film soundtrack.
Reaching the closing stretch of the album, we come across “Land of the Thousand Lakes” further drives the album along at somewhat reduced thrashing pace that keeps your head nodding through the tremolo-picked mania and the crushing half-time feel riffs, all supported by that solid rhythm section. The penultimate track is the title to Dawn of the Nine which showcases the most diverse sounding track on the album. The riffing is pure doom-influenced with slow and discordant riffing contrasting in dynamics between more subdued lower volume guitar, and explosive repetitions at a higher gain loudness. Throughout these slower, insanely heavy (showcasing the immense bass tone to the max) sections is a more spoken style to the vocals which really enhances the track before going straight for the guttural power over the heavy sections. It must be said that frontman and band leader Jonny Hedlund gives a stellar performance on Dawn of the Nine. His vocals have a range of styles from his signature roar to more quiet moments yet the contrast is brilliant and enhances both styles greatly, and subsequently enhances the music. Hedlund also has an amazingly decipherable vocal style which is somewhat absent from other death metal bands – the genre is known for having super low growling vocals where the listener can’t understand a word the vocalist is saying and yet in Unleashed you can make out the words of Dawn of the Nine’s story as well as appreciate the aggressive roaring. The title track to album also showcases further Unleashed’s brilliant songwriting skills by following up the slower riffing with a seamless transition to a swinging bluesy hard rock style riff which is totally unexpected but works brilliantly in my opinion. The song then ends on an extended acoustic passage after a repetition of the main riffing leading into the closing track of Dawn of the Nine. “Welcome the Son of Thor!” is a more melodic track that is again, brilliantly catchy and an excellent end to the album. The title and ending soundscape to the album suggest to me that in the future Unleashed will be releasing another conceptual follow up to Dawn of the Nine. Will Odalheim become a trilogy or a saga? Who knows, but if the music is this top quality I already can’t wait for the follow-up.
Production-wise I can’t say much more than the job done by the band’s own guitarist Fredrik Folkare, is excellent. The classic super-distorted hi-gain fuzz guitar sound that is associated with the old-skool Swedish death metal scene is gone in favour of a more slick modern production but it suits the music perfectly. All of the elements to the sound are sitting just right in the mix with nothing masking anything else. Sonically the rhythm section is pure pounding with an awesomely low rumbling bass tone which when coupled with the drums and guitars, creates a sonic earthquake straight from the strike of Thor’s Mjollnir striking the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr to the ground. In addition to this Hedlund’s brilliant and varied vocal performance on Dawn of the Nine compliments the music perfectly and never fails to send shivers down one’s spine like the cold northwinds straight from Nifelheim itself.
Overall Unleashed’s Dawn of the Nine is an excellent modern death metal concept album with plenty of extremely heavy yet catchy raging riffs and high replay value. I can easily listen to this album over and over again without getting bored. It truly is a testament to Unleashed’s mastery of the art of extreme metal songwriting, and I can’t wait to witness the band live when they go on tour to support the album. Dawn of the Nine is currently available in Europe via Nuclear Blast Records and is released on April 27th in the UK, and on the 5th of May in the US (both territories again via Nuclear Blast). Whether you’re a long-term Unleashed fan or a new fan discovering the band, go and buy this album and anything else from Unleashed you can find (especially the debut Where No Life Dwells, Dawn of the Nine’s predecessor Odalheim, plus I highly recommend Midvinterblot). It’s a brilliant record and I guarantee you will enjoy it. Long live the masters of Swedish death metal!
Feature image – Unleashed official Facebook
Dawn of the Nine album artwork courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records