Sworn to a Great Divide
oilwork came up in the mid-'90s Swedish melodic death metal explosion alongside peers like In Flames and At the Gates. As metal paradigm shifts go, it was fairly conservative. Basically, bands sped up Iron Maiden's guitar harmonies and added death metal growls. Early Soilwork albums like Steelbath Suicide and The Chainheart Machine were flashy displays of minor key fireworks. For 2001's A Predator's Portrait, vocalist Bjorn "Speed" Strid added clean singing to his repertoire. The following year's Natural Born Chaos pumped keyboards up in the mix, cementing Soilwork's sound—as Strid puts it, "a balance between melodies and intensity."
However, metal (much of it, anyway) is built on intensity, not balance. Balance implies compromise, pulling back. Slayer's Reign in Blood pushes the beat like a runaway train. Innovations like thrash metal, death metal, and grindcore arose from going bigger, faster, stronger. Black metal is among the most emotionally and texturally scathing music around. Strid's talk of balance hints at metal's supposed enemy: pop music.
But Soilwork's music bears pop music signatures—melodic hooks, verse/chorus structures, soft/loud dynamics reminiscent of Nirvana. The band's previous album, Stabbing the Drama, was single-minded in its drive to get to its choruses; after scores of listens, I recall virtually none of its riffs. In Soilwork, Strid's vocals are high in the mix and carry the melodies. The keyboards carry the harmonies, while chugging guitars act as support rather than propulsion. Soilwork are really a heavier version of modern emo bands like Hawthorne Heights and Fall Out Boy.
On Sworn to a Great Divide, Soilwork sound slightly "more metal" than before. Dissonance occasionally crops up, and the guitar work is more ornate. "Breeding Thorns" has majestic guitar harmonies, while the title track erupts into a fluid, fleet-fingered solo. "The Pittsburgh Syndrome" is Soilwork's fastest, heaviest work in ages. But even that song feels muzzled, pushing against slick, over-compressed production. The album's making-of DVD depicts the band recording in separate rooms to click tracks, a vastly artificial process. Titling a song "20 More Miles" is curious for a Swedish band—a marketing move, perhaps?
Soilwork are right to highlight Strid's vocals, though. He hits all his notes and excels at melisma. Hooky choruses abound; top 40 acts would be hard-pressed to match the infectious refrain in "I, Vermin." In "Light Discovering Darkness," Strid does a credible Dave Gahan impression. So what if this music has been sanded almost completely edgeless? So what if the album artwork rips off Stephen Kasner's cover for Himsa's Hail Horror? This record's ruthless catchiness would make Diane Warren jealous. That this falls under metal, as does Slayer and Sunn O))), is a credit to the music's breadth and resiliency.