Avatarium - Death, Where Is Your Sting
October 9, 2022

Surely, if there’s any fairness in this world, Death, Where Is Your Sting will catapult Avatarium to superstar status.

This is Avatarium’s fifth studio album and represents a key moment in their career since it is their first without the influence of founder Leif Edling (of Candlemass fame). The group’s debut album in 2013 was very much a ponderous son-of-Candlemass doom type of affair but by 2019’s The Fire I Long For, Edling’s influence had waned, and the group had adopted a much more mainstream heavy rock sound. So, with guitarist Marcus Jidell and singer Jennie-Ann Smith now firmly in the driving seat, what sort of fare have Avatarium produced? Well, this is still a heavy rock album for sure and builds on what has gone before. But, the use of loud distorted guitars and heavy-handed bass is much reduced, and the increase in variety of timbres and instrumentation adds new depth and nuances to the music. The ‘70s heavy rock and blues-rock influences also seem to have diminished in favour of a more modern sound. So, let’s dive in and examine things a little more closely, shall we?

Now, Avatarium traditionally like to get out of the gates fast with an energetic number, but here, A Love Like Ours, signals a change of approach. It opens with a few seconds of solo violin. Yes, a violin! It’s quickly joined by acoustic and muted electric guitar, creating an ominous landscape and a sense of unease. Smith enters with a slow and simple rising and falling melody that then cleverly gets transferred to guitar (overlaid with harsh staccato guitar chords giving it an almost industrial feel), and over that backdrop Smith’s voice soars to deliver the chorus punch line.  Around these simple ideas, the band construct a superb track which continues to throw up the unexpected – listen to the interplay between violin and keyboards over the military drum rolls at the four-minute mark or the slightly hysterical solo that concludes the piece. It’s a five-and-a-half-minute masterclass in writing rock music.

Lyrically, the song is intriguing too. The title might sound like some sort of Lionel Richie homage to adolescent infatuation, but the lyrics contain disturbing lines such as ‘In restless sleep, I hear you sing a lullaby for suffering’. No, folks, this is no teenage love song! The press release notes state that this is the first album where the band have written all the lyrics, and Smith goes on to say ‘when it comes to thinking about death, I’m a natural. Avatarium is a vehicle that soothes the seriousness and offers the sheer joy of music. There are all these layers on the new album; it is intellectual, it is existential, there are serious topics of religion, philosophy and psychology, but you can still just enjoy the music and get lost in the riffs.’ That last point may well be true but the poetic and enigmatic nature of the lyrics on Death, Where I Your Sting, meld so well with the sonic landscapes that they are an essential part of the listening experience. This effect reminded me of the same sort of alchemy that Blue Oyster Cult conjured up around the Secret Treaties and Agents Of Fortune period with great music matched by obtuse esoteric lyrics.

After that stunning opening, the band go one step further with Stockholm, which to these ears is not only the standout track on the album, but very probably the standout track of the group’s entire career so far. A Sabbath-like riff bookends the song while the main part of the song contrasts a quieter acoustic section and a gentle vocalising theme with a brilliant chorus full of sweeping symphonic keyboards and jagged guitar chords. There’s an inspired melody line from Smith in that chorus. Listen to the earnestness with which she spits out ‘These streets are so cold’; it’s so effective that you’ll find yourself reaching for a blanket without realising it!

After those two intense mid-paced tracks, the speed picks up for the title track which by comparison is a relatively straightforward rock’n’roll number. There’s clever use of reverb on the guitar and vocals and an infectious anthemic chorus. Surely this one that will go down well in the live set.  There’s some intriguing lyrics on this one too, opening with ‘Did you come to deck my grave? Did you come to settle matters this time? Am I disappointing you, after all it seems I’m still alive?’.  Smith has said that the album title was also inspired by the pandemic: ‘It’s like saying ‘I survived death this time, but I know I’m on its calendar’. Many of us have lost people we care about due to the pandemic, we have all lived through it, so the album title is as if to say ‘Death, I felt your presence, but I’m not going this time.’’

The title track certainly shows the band can still rock, but can they slow down the pace too? You bet! Psalm For The Living inhabits a place of such quiet and stillness that it’s hard to reconcile the fact that this is actually the same band. Smith opens with a sublime melody that is disarming in its simplicity, and the way her voice is supported by acoustic and gently fuzzed guitars is superb. Add some poignant lyrics about our impermanence (‘Seed of night within me slowly sprouts and spreads’) and its difficult not to slip into deep and despairing thoughts. I don’t know how much consideration the band put into the running order of the album but on the vinyl release, Psalm For The Living is the closing track on side one, which is perfect, allowing listeners a much-needed moment of silence before flipping the sides.

So, can side two maintain that outstanding level? The answer is ‘nearly, but not quite’. If it doesn’t reach the same heights, it’s partly because there isn’t anything to match Stockholm, and partly due to Nocturne being the one weaker link in the chain. Nocturne is the most aggressive and metal track of all eight and it’s driven by a damn fine riff, but the chorus doesn’t quite rise to the occasion and the wall of noise production approach seems to jar with the subtlety elsewhere on the album. God Is Silent God is the closest song to the band’s doom roots thanks to its thunderous grinding riff. The instrumentation is impressive again with the keyboards in the verses edging towards a Kashmir-like symphonic feel. The power of Smith’s voice is quite awesome in this one too – the way she belts out ‘but God Is Silent’ is little short of frightening. Mother Can You Hear Me Now is another example of curious instrumentation, this time with tribal percussion and sparse backing to Smith’s voice creating an unusual texture. Smith’s vocals are somewhat muted too which makes you wonder where the song is going but then around the four-minute mark Jidell launches into a brilliant and lengthy solo to cap off the song perfectly.

On The Fire I Long For the band chose to finish with a ballad. That could be considered a brave choice but with a voice like Smith’s, maybe not such a bad idea at all. This time around, they take an even bolder approach and drop Smith altogether to finish with an instrumental! Transcendent is the closest the band have come to writing a prog piece with the opening and closing parts sounding very Floydian in their dreamy meandering.  This is offset by a radically different central segment based around a violent and heavily distorted guitar riff which then climaxes with a solo …..no, not a guitar solo, but a violin solo playing variations of the same riff. It’s an unexpected masterstroke, and at the same time the use of violin immediately triggers a recollection of its use as the opening instrument on the album, thus neatly bringing us full circle and satisfyingly bookending the album.  

The band owe Edling so much but at the same time it is wonderful to see the Edling-inspired caterpillar metamorphose into this remarkable butterfly. The plodding doom riffs of the debut album seem like ancient history, replaced by an intoxicating alchemy of dense musical constructions, Smith’s outstanding vocals and visionary lyrics. Without a doubt, it’s the band’s best album. Surely, if there’s any fairness in this world, Death, Where Is Your Sting will catapult Avatarium to superstar status.