At this point in the game there’s a confidence about Swedish progressive types Soilwork that you can almost taste. It’s a confidence born of years honing their musical blade to rapier sharp proportions, coupled with a knowledge that their fanbase has become ever more discerning with them; they don’t need to worry about a rump of furrow-browed gumbies calling for a new Chainheart Machine every ten minutes, meaning that somehow-improbable-ten-years-ago sixteen minute prog epics – like the one kicking off new album A Whisp of the Atlantic, for instance – are now not only accepted but actually welcomed. It’s a nice position to be in.
It’s also a position which renders criticism of Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid and company virtually pointless, too. These aren’t men in the business of being tastemakers or influencers; they are not particularly selling anything. Their art is palpably that – theirs – and we can take it or leave it. They’ll be making this music anyway whether you and I buy it or not. Midway through the gargantuan title track, I’m willing to bet that you’ll have decided to buy it, once again.
A Whisp of the Atlantic – the track – is a sumptuous affair, linking names like King Crimson and the Dixie Dregs to Swedish melodeath as if that were a completely normal state of affairs, in the process dropping in and out of modern jazz idioms as readily and willingly as the deployment of withering blastbeats from the steel wrists of drummer Bastian Thusgaard. It’s easy to blame this perceived ‘watering down’ of Soilwork’s metal as a direct side-effect of Strid and guitarist David Andersson‘s ‘other’ band, the Night Flight Orchestra. But those that do that are, frankly, talking through their hats; NFO is a bauble, a nostalgia-as-fun-cash-cow for the lads that passes the time in a whirl of berets and eighties posturing. This, as the late night jazz strains of a seedy nightclub fade away at the end of this most ambitious meisterwerk, is very much the real deal. Heavy metal for grown ups indeed.
The other four tracks that make up the album are more the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the latter day ‘Work. Feverish, blasts and death grunting aside, does amusingly carry a whiff of the NFO about it, especially when Strid goes clean, but even here the comparison works for rather than against the band. This is superior melodic death metal, with a far greater grasp of what makes a great tune – metal or not – than most bands in the genre can muster. Desperado, the shortest track here, is a real rager, with Sven Karlsson proving himself a more than adept death metal keyboarder and Sylvain Coudret meshing superbly with Andersson to provide some of the most brutal riffage of the record.
Death Diviner adds grumbling bass and slide guitar to the mix, almost carelessly tossing the album’s best chorus into the track, Strid riding above the whole thing with one of the vocal performances of 2020. Final track The Nothingness And The Devil starts brashly before winding down back on a proggy tip, and it’s possibly the only track to really pack a punch, but this is relative. In the final washup, Soilwork have come up with something rather enticing here, and you’d be a fool not to get involved in it’s mysteries. Top stuff.