It’s seems counter-intuitive, but Avatar‘s second concept record in three years – in which their lead guitarist Jonas “Kungen” Jarlsby is their titular King in their newly-recognized Avatar Country – succeeds in large part because of its simplicity. The Swedish group’s sound has continued to evolve from their early melodeath past into something that’s equally unique and engaging; it’s experimental and progressive in scope, yet there’s an important emphasis on what makes songs (and, really, albums) memorable. The whole focus of the story of Avatar Country, at its very core, is a celebration of the transformative power of metal, and a Metalocalpyse-ian questioning of “is that metal?” throughout its runtime. Thankfully, these Swedes – or whatever they call themselves as representatives of their new country, Avatarians? – deliver the goods in abundance, albeit in a short and very sweet record.
Avatar Country flies in the face of what you’d expect from a concept record. Songs rarely stick to the same style or even repeat certain motifs. Lyrics don’t particularly provide a self-referential delight worthy of detailed devouring. The longest and most impressive musical track (“Legend of the King”) basically starts the record, rather than serving as a rousing closing number. Hell, the whole thing is shockingly short and efficient, and I would say that individual songs stick out more than the whole experience, but that’s more because of how daring an experiment Avatar Country is. However, and here’s where the genius lies, Avatar are such savvy musical alchemists, they don’t feel as weird as they actually are. Take for example, one of the album’s best, “Statue of the King,” which sounds like The Haunted trying to write a Devin Townsend tune, or “The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country,” which sounds like a country Western anthem fronted by a possessed version of ACDC’s Brian Johnson. Both tracks succeed on the excellent execution much more than the novelty factor alone, not to mention the impressive dexterity of vocalist Johannes Eckerstrom. The group’s love of the gods of early melodic metal, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, are on full and glorious display throughout, especially on the aforementioned eight-minute doozy and the two-part instrumental closer.
Ultimately, it’s the band’s keen understanding of how to make songs punchy, melodic, and fun that elevates Avatar Country from a neat experiment to an excellent album. As mentioned a bit, Avatar are gleefully showcasing their love of a a whole host of metal’s classic acts (not to mention a clear love of Queen, The Beatles, and orchestral jazz). While their lovable sideshow elements are occasionally present, this is really a metal record for those that love how the style makes them feel, and the album’s best songs exemplify that brilliantly. “King’s Harvest” is groove-laden, heavy, but it also features a sneaky dose of progressive and jazzy melody. “The King Wants You” also has a rather slithery dose of rhythmic hooks. Aside from the funny but unnecessary four minutes spent on the country’s anthem and the King’s speech on his now formidable bowel movements, very little of this short record is wasted.
Yet, it’s all brought together by an impressive display from the King himself, as this is unabashedly a metal record. Riffs, leads, and solos are as dexterous as they are impressive; The King has a clear understanding of and the desire to reproduce that powerful feeling that only the best metal is able to imbue on its disciples. Avatar Country is clearly best suited for those keen on forward-thinking and melodic metal, but there is an awful lot for fans of a wide spectrum, from power, progressive, death, groove, and even some classic flair thrown in. Just look to “The Statue of the King”, the album’s best (and a contender for the best thing I’ve heard in years) moment which marries Avatar’s uniquely manic style with a truly timeless energy and power. Avatar’s latest experiment works on so many levels, resulting in what is sure to be one of the best metal records of 2018.