Sunday, September 12, 2021

Review: Avatar, "Hunter Gatherer"

It’s not often these days that I’m a latecomer to a band. All the music in the world is at my fingertips, and I’m pretty much willing to give anything at least one listen. But somehow, I missed the boat on Avatar.

Back in my newspaper days, I remember them playing a local club. I checked them out, thought it wasn’t my cup of tea, and moved on. I’m not sure what album that was or what songs I listened to, but having spent the past couple of weeks catching up on their catalog, I feel a little silly.

The song that sent me down the Avatar rabbit hole was “Child” from their latest release Hunter Gatherer. I’m not sure what made me click on it after steadfastly ignoring the band for years, but I’m glad that I did.

The super-creepy little ditty about a young child whose mother has been buried alive bounces between a manic, showtune-like verse and a bashing, screaming bridge that leads to an infectious chorus melody straight out of a horror movie – the good kind. It was love at first listen for me, and after running through the song a few times, I had to hear the rest of the record.

Hunter Gatherer, and Avatar in general, encompasses everything I love about metal. There’s a great variety, from pummeling melodic death metal to catchy hook-driven mainstream tunes to a piano ballad. Avatar wears its influences on its sleeve for the world to see but manages to avoid sounding like any of those other acts. The riffs of guitarists Jonas Jarlsby and Tim Ohrstrom are largely simple, but incredibly effective. Then there’s vocalist Johannes Eckerstrom. This dude is a monster, switching effortlessly between at least five or six vocal styles and bringing a great theatricality to the music.

The album kicks off with the bashing “Silence in the Age of Apes” as drummer John Alfredsson beats the listener over the head and Eckerstrom screams in their faces. Yet, still, there’s a very melodic thread to sink your teeth into. It’s one of only two all-out assaults on the listener, the second being “When All But Force Has Failed,” a thrash and punk-influenced basher toward the end of Hunter Gatherer. It’s the shortest track on the record at just under three minutes, but it packs a lot of action into its running time.

The big influences start to come out on second track, “Colossus.” You hear some Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails in the industrial open, but as soon as the guitars of Jarlsby and Ohrstrom kick in, it gets super heavy. They work out their Alice in Chains fetish both on the main riff, which put me in mind of “Man in the Box,” and on the bendy, off-kilter lick under the bridge. Eckerstrom goes from a Manson moan on the verse to some Rob Halford-esque highs on the bridge to a snarling growl for the chorus. The song also features one of my favorite guitar solos on Hunter Gatherer. It’s just a classic fast metal run, nothing fancy, but very tasteful and not overbearing.

Things take a lighter turn after that on “A Secret Door,” which opens with a whistled melody from Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour). It’s the only thing that he does on the song, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t been whistling it for two weeks. The song itself is a dark piece that’s almost a mainstream rock track if not for a supercharged screaming bridge. It has a great sing-along melody that should be awesome in the live setting, and the last verse features just a touch of counterpoint on the vocals, and there’s nothing that wins me over like counterpoint vocals.

While heavy and weird is the M.O. for Avatar, sometimes they just have fun. The 1980s hard rocker in me has to throw horns to “Scream Until You Wake.” The song melds a glitzy hard-rock melody with some punishing thrash riffing and the chorus is just pure ‘80s metal gold.

For all of the creepy and disturbing themes that Eckerstrom goes for in his lyrics, the one that I find most personally unsettling is the ballad “Gun.” At one point in my life, I may have dismissed it simply because it was a ballad, but it hits me at just the right time as I have a son that’s approaching his late teenage years in an increasingly unsettled and uncertain world. The song is stripped down with just Eckerstrom and a keyboard, giving it a certain bleakness, and the vocal is appropriately vulnerable and on the edge of an emotional breakdown.

“Gun” is honestly a little difficult for me to listen to, which I suppose is the mark of a truly powerful song. It won’t get the plays of some of the other songs simply because it takes me to a dark place, but it might just be the strongest and most meaningful song on Hunter Gatherer. The heaviness of “When All But Force Has Failed” is a welcome respite after the emotional journey of “Gun,” and that leads to the album closer “Wormhole.”

It’s here that Avatar pays tribute to another influence (on all metal bands) with a big, droning Sabbath-style riff. Eckerstrom also puts a little of the Ozzy mock in his voice on a memorable bridge. Of course, for the rest of “Wormhole,” he’s screaming hard enough to make you afraid that his larynx is going to fly out and smack the wall. The guitar solo break follows with the Sabbath sound with another nice tasteful trading of leads by Jarlsby and Ohrstrom.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s not a bad song on Hunter Gatherer. It strikes a nice balance between heavy records in the band’s catalog like Hail the Apocalypse and their campier work like Avatar Country. It’s also the only album in my catchup on the band where I don’t really find myself skipping songs. I’m not sure what drew me to click on that YouTube video, but Hunter Gatherer is the record I needed this year. It’s one thing that 2020 got right.

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