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The exploded hand - 89%

gasmask_colostomy, September 15th, 2015
Written based on this version: 1999, CD, Century Media Records (Digipak)

The important thing with opening tracks sometimes is that they rip your head off and spit down the hole, leaving the listener reeling in the wake of the assault and unable to recover for the duration of the album. That sort of happens here, whereby 'The Immortal' is so completely and utterly destructive that picking holes in songs like 'Demonic Science' or 'Seeds of Hate' becomes easy in comparison, as well as rather mean. I think the cover image is absolutely perfect for this album, since it's probably a selfie of someone after listening to that first track, with their ragged bloody stump still in the position their arm was when they pressed the play button. Anyway, enough buffoonery: is 'Burning Bridges' really good enough to cause such personal injury?

Yes and no, to be honest. For me, it's always difficult to consider Arch Enemy as a chronological beast, since I heard the Angela Gossow-era material before any of the Johan Liiva albums and prefer the early work so strongly that this seems to weigh in at about 100% when stacked up alongside 'Doomsday Machine' and 'Anthems of Rebellion', which relied too much on groove and production rather than song quality, speed, and riffs. One thing that has always puzzled me about the Amott brothers is that they are both very, very talented but don't seem able to compose and structure songs efficiently. Looking at the later material, the slower pace and plainer riffs are baffling; why would you downplay your best element? On the other hand, 'Stigmata' also had some slow sections, though the problem with that album was its messy nature - the songs seemed to have a lot of rough edges and not fit together fully. 'Burning Bridges' is not quite "song-writing for dummies" though it favours a much simpler technique. The general approach to any given song is as follows: 1. Take a riff and play it a few times, perhaps with one change. 2. Take another riff and use it to lead into the verse. 3. Take a third riff and get Liiva to shout something over it. 4. Play one of the first riffs again. 5. Chorus. 6. Repeat steps 1-5. 7. Do solos for a minute. 8. Chorus. Really, it's quite simple, uses a fair number of riffs, and doesn't give many opportunities to fuck things up.

The fact that this formula works so well is proof of the band's abilities. Anyone who's spent more than a year or two listening to metal must have come across at least one of the instrumentalists on this album, while anyone more experienced should understand that 'Burning Bridges' is the kind of release on which these musicians built their reputations. Daniel Erlandsson, in the first place, is practically ubiquitous in the melodeath and extreme metal scene in Europe, with stints in so many bands it's actually become difficult to keep track. His style here is not exactly typical of melodeath as a genre, but typical of Arch Enemy as a band, including so much variation and such a high level of precision that even some of the rhythm riffs sound like they are written by the drummer rather than by the guitarists. Perhaps his defining characteristic is a lightness of touch and relentless energy that might seem at odds with each other, but keep the album pacy and upbeat. Sharlee D'Angelo has been around as well, though doesn't get quite such a strong outing, often being hidden by guitars, except for some small features in 'Seed of Hate' and 'Angelclaw'. The guitarists are arguably at their creative and performative best on this album: there are a whole slew of amazing riffs and a lot of lead material (perhaps 10 minutes of this 35 minute album contains lead guitar), which maintains an incredibly high quality in general, despite a few mindlessly chuggy and over-rhythmic sections. The catchiness is another important factor that they provide, since Liiva doesn't have the voice to produce hooks, although he is consistently brutal and sometimes emotional, which grounds the album, allowing the guitarists to add melody. The production benefits all of these elements and fortunately doesn't sound too clean, helping Liiva with his slightly rough voice and ensuring that quality is paramount, while groove isn't really an issue.

Now, I need to justify that comment about 'The Immortal'. That song gets my nod as the best here simply because it displays such a phenomenal amount of energy and drive and has the most memorable riffs of the album. The first one is not bad, the second is raging, and the chorus riff might never leave your head again, while the solos certainly don't disappoint - it's that kind of song. The other numbers are all a little slower and some, like 'Dead Inside' and 'Demonic Science' have a couple of naff parts, but the quality is generally very strong. The album benefits from having only 8 songs, since they are slightly similar and might get boring after 45 minutes, but the virtuosity accounts for a bit of the variety and we are never too far from something memorable. 'Pilgrim' and 'Silverwing' edge it as the catchiest and most distinctive of the mid-paced songs, while the closing title track changes things up for an epic doomy crawl, complete with orchestral sounds that leave the album with a lamenting, hollow feeling far from the exuberant melodeath of the first half hour and entirely befitting of that statue on the cover. Some editions also include 'Diva Satanica' and 'Hydra', which are decent additions, the former being a fast-paced song with some hooky riffage and the latter a short creepy instrumental.

I'm not completely sure if there is any Arch Enemy album that I can give myself over to loving entirely, but 'Burning Bridges' comes as close as possible to perfection in this style and with these songwriters. Nothing is bad, most of it is great, and everything has plenty of replay value. Just adjust the volume setting before 'The Immortal' - up or down, your choice.