Review by Jeff Maki
“Ladies and gentleman, your hero has returned again,” the evil clown proclaims on Feathers & Flesh‘s first single, “The Eagle Has Landed.” Yes, he has made his way out from the circus tent once again, his band crafting a fantastic new concept album, centering on a brave little owl. Vocalist Johannes Eckerström explains: “It’s a fable about an owl who goes to war to stop the sun from rising. It’s a tragic story of someone ultimately being set up to fail. She will learn many lessons and encounter many other creatures with ideas of their own. In the end, however, one must ask if something was learned at all.”
Active since 2001, Avatar finally broke through with its style of Scandinavian shock-rock on 2012’s The Black Waltz. Then it really started to take off with its 2014 album, Hail the Apocalypse. Melodic death metal bled into its music, garnering the attention of the more extreme metal fans. Its hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, is the birthplace of the subgenre. But now on Feathers & Flesh, Avatar has created a work of art around its story, channeling the theatrics and style of classic rock artists like Alice Cooper and Queen.
Our friend, the owl, begins her journey at “The House of Eternal Hunt,” where guitarists Kungen and Tim Öhrström’s virtuoso playing is like Brian May in a lightning-fast power metal band. The song is more of a classical piece. However, this style stands alone on the album, as each track is different than the next. The remainder of the flight can go anywhere from here.
“The Eagle Has Landed” introduces us to our antagonist, the eagle, and he steals the show. This is clearly a moment of major importance in the story, and the album seems to center on this bold, charismatic character. This is his theme song, and the chorus is the most memorable on the album.
The album conveys a range of emotions through its music, from wonder, hope and despair, to happiness and peace, like in “New Land.” The second half of the song has a Beatles-like harmony that made me envision soaring across an ocean, then over lush green forests with sky-high treetops. I think that’s what it’s supposed to do.
The frantic “For the Swarm” is the telling of the owl’s encounter with a beehive, and the music is the equivalent of such. “Tooth, Beak & Claw” is like an extreme surf rock tune—the evil clown sounds diabolical here. “Pray the Sun Away” is part melodic death and part funk, another unlikely combination, but like others here, Avatar pulls it off.
Eckerström’s vocal performance is among the best in recent memory. He’s a doppleganger of different styles, adapting to each song and what it calls upon him to do. It’s tough to compare anyone to the late, great Freddie Mercury, but a modern-day comparison might be Serj Tankian of System of a Down or Marilyn Manson in his prime.
The album and our owl’s journey seemingly end with “Sky Burial,” a melancholic opus and fitting end to the fairy tale. I felt sad for our protagonist and sad the journey was over.
I’m not going to pretend to fully understand the concept of the album, but I had a clear vision in my head of what I though it was as I listened. I’ll see if it matches the band’s when I get my hands on the physical story book that’s to be released with the album.
I had been looking for a little more out of my music in recent weeks, even revisiting classic albums from Queen, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. There’s been a glaring hole in our musical landscape for quite some time. There’s still good music being produced, but where is the entertainment? Where is the theater? Where is the deeper meaning? Now that we have Avatar’s Feathers & Flesh, I can suspend my search for a bit. This album is inspired, an instant classic, and most of all, a lot of fun. I can’t wait until the circus comes to my town.
(eOne Music, May 13, 2016)