Album Title: Escape Of The Phoenix
Label: AFM Records
Date of Release: 26 February 2021
There was a reason why I was so excited a few years ago when Evergrey announced the return of two ex-members to the fold. It was because I knew that the line-up was the best that it could possibly be. I still miss some of the old members of the band, a band that went through a period of some instability throughout the late noughties and beyond. But I knew, as a long-term fan, a fanboy in fact, that the return of drummer Jonas Ekdahl and guitarist Henrik Danhage was the best news possible. What I hadn’t bargained for, was just how accurate my prediction would be.
The ride began with ‘Hymns For The Broken’ in 2014, the first in a trilogy of very personal albums for frontman and talisman Tom Englund. It continued with 2016’s ‘The Storm Within’, and was completed by ‘The Atlantic’ in 2019. And what a trio. Not a dud song anywhere. Just raw passion, power, hunger, honesty, electric performances, and a sense of togetherness that had been missing during previous incarnations. I love all three and have written lengthy reviews full of superlatives and gushing praise. The three records all remain on constant rotation in the Mansion of Much Metal but, being a fanboy, I was eager to hear more new material.
That being said, whenever new material emerges from a band with which you have a special affinity, the news is always tempered with a touch of nerves. Will this new album be as good as the previous ones? What if I don’t like it? Have they exhausted their creativity? Has the new record been rushed? Have they gone in a direction that I wish they hadn’t?
And then I get a reality check: Evergrey is comprised of my favourite singer of all time. Tom Englund could sing the contents of an Ikea catalogue and I’d still listen. In Johan Niemann, Evergrey are blessed with one of the greatest bass players of this generation; the abilities of the quiet, humble man are astonishing, as he has displayed on recent Evergrey releases. Jonas Ekdahl is a monster behind the drumkit, offering dexterity, subtlety and power, as well as being a talented co-songwriter. Keyboardist Rikard Zander has grown over the years to become ever more integral to the band’s music, offering both the expected atmospheres, as well as the unexpected, to add depth and richness to the compositions. And finally, but by no means least, we have guitarist Henrik Danhage. His strapline ‘old shredders do it better’ could not be more apt and accurate, as the guy has some serious skills, both in the riffing department, and in his lead work, which is equally as emotional as Englund’s, but with a wonderfully organic, bluesy edge to it as well.
Taking all this into consideration, how could the quintet ever disappoint? The answer, having been blessed with the company of this record for a number of glorious months, is that they couldn’t. And they haven’t. Not even slightly. If anything, ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’ is better than I could have dared imagine and it runs the preceding trilogy of records close in terms of quality, hunger, desire, talent, and skill. As I sit here now, listening for about the trillionth time, I’d venture you’d have a difficult task in persuading me that this isn’t their best album yet. And those of you who know me, will know exactly how powerful that statement is.
Before I delve more into the music, I want to take a few moments just to dwell on the album artwork and the production of ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’. The cover artwork is courtesy of the talented Giannis Nakos (Remedy Art Design) and if anything, is more stunning than his work on ‘The Atlantic’. And produced by the renowned Jacob Hansen, the eleven songs sound incredible; vibrant, muscular, and crystal-clear, there’s no way in hell that this beast won’t tear down the Mansion Of Much Metal when I play the finished article through my late Grandfather’s speakers. I pity my neighbours…well, sort of.
And now on to the main event – the music.
‘Escape Of The Phoenix’ begins with the first ‘single’ off the record, ‘Forever Outsider’. And, unlike ‘The Atlantic’ before it, there’s no quiet or foreboding intro to transition into a longer ‘epic’ song. No, here, after a brief drum roll, we’re hit with a monster of a riff, the kind of riff that Evergrey seem to have perfected over the past few years. It signals the intent of the Swedes, almost a release of pent-up frustration caused by the state of the world this past year or so. No longer able to be caged, they come out swinging and throw their listeners flat on their backsides in the process. It doesn’t take long before Tom Englund smooths some of the spiky, heavy edges with his dulcet tones and before you know it, an insanely catchy chorus emerges out of the dark aggression, one that I simply cannot get out of my head, however hard I try. Keys and intriguing synth sounds flit around the relentless drumming, angry guitars and commanding bass work before the guitars take flight with elegance, caressing the ears with killer lead sounds. What a breathless beginning.
Up next is ‘Where August Mourn’ and it’s another piece of genius wrapped up in five-and-a-half minutes. It was a bit of a slow-burner for me but now it’s one of many highlights on ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’. The central melody appears right from the outset, led by Zander’s keys alongside a flurry of powerful riffing. The verse is delicate and poignant, Niemann’s throbbing bass standing out alongside Englund’s soulful singing and understated, atmospheric keys. The chorus, by contrast is hook-laden and muscular, whilst also sounding strangely serene. The extended instrumental section that breaks into lead guitar territory is dark and oppressive, before being brightened by a return of the stunning, bittersweet chorus.
If you thought that was good, track three is even better – aural perfection if I may be so bold. It’s more of a slower-paced ballad, but it contains everything I love about this incredible band. For a start, Tom sounds better than ever, crooning with pure emotion across the song. The guitar solos that soar atop a delicate piano melody are equally emotional, whilst the incoming bass that replaces its six-string (or seven) cousin is stunning. Simple, effective, authoritative, it commands attention. The poignancy oozes from every pore of this track as it weaves it’s way through melancholy soundscapes rich in heart-breaking melody, accented by well-placed heavy riffs to inject the necessary metallic edge.
‘Dandelion Cipher’ is a much pacier number, which features a pulsing bass line and modern synths in the verses after a frenetic, bruising intro. The heaviness returns for a strong, memorable chorus, drawing comparisons with some of their output on ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’ and ‘The Storm Within’. The section where Tom sings alone with just a minimalist backdrop for company is a lovely touch, a marked juxtaposition to the thunderous chorus and wailing lead guitar breaks.
When I saw James LaBrie’s name referenced in some early press coverage, I immediately recoiled as his is not a voice that I’m overly enamoured with these days. However, I needn’t have done so. Maybe it’s not James LaBrie’s voice that I have become bored of over the years. Maybe, it’s the music that he sings alongside. There’s a thought for another day. But it’s a thought that ‘The Beholder’ has raised from nowhere, because the Canadian has rarely sounded better than he does here. In fact, in tandem with Englund, I get a whole new batch of raised hairs and goosebumps. The song itself is a dark, heavy lumbering beast, doused in rich modern synth sounds with one of the best choruses on the album. And when LaBrie enters the slightly more progressive-sounding composition at around the half-way mark, he improves the experience. Best duet on an Evergrey record? I am certainly thinking that right now, and I welcome anyone to try to change my mind.
I always feel sorry for the song that follows a personal favourite, and I was expecting it to blast me away with measured aggression. Instead, ‘In Absence Of Sun’ opens with a fragile, beautiful piano melody, inviting Tom to join it to guide us deep into the song. There’s a Gothic, dark, theatrical vibe as choral effects join for what you expect is an explosion of sound. Instead, the drums and bass beef things up whilst allowing the dark vibe to continue. It’s not until yet another scintillating chorus that the guitars enter with full force, chugging and churning with purpose as the extended chorus continues. There’s a return to quieter climes immediately after, complete with more insane bass rhythms, delicate guitar solo and heartfelt lyrics. It may be the case that Tom has put to bed his intensely personal lyrical content from his previous trilogy, but his output this time is no less raw and emotional – it wouldn’t be Evergrey any other way, would it?
‘Eternal Nocturnal’ is another enormous anthem that, together with ‘Forever Outsider’ acts as a rallying call to all Evergrey fans across the world. The lyrics speak directly to us all, telling us that we may not fit the norm, or we might be struggling, but Evergrey are the same – we are one, an unstoppable force, mutually supportive, and one big family. I’ll be honest, it is sentiment that might normally sound trite, but when these guys say it, I believe them. The bombastic chorus and the sheer energy within the track only help to accentuate the message within the song. Oh and that ending gives me chills every time as keys signal a final, huge reprise of the central chorus.
The title track is heavier than hell, thanks to what sound like some seriously down-tuned seven-string riffage. There is a definite sinister edge to the music that’s largely expunged when the chorus hits, underpinned by a relentless barrage from Ekdahl behind the drumkit. Nevertheless, it offers some of the most theatrical and dark sounds on the entire record, not to mention one of the most off-the-wall solos, within one of the most straight-forward-sounding compositions on ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’.
Another firm favourite of mine is ‘You From You’ and if I’m honest, it’s largely because of the lead guitar work in the latter stages of the song. It is a quieter, ballad-like song which begins quietly but with more dark, melancholy feelings permeating every note. Performances across the band are of the highest order, so it would be unfair to single anyone out. At least, until the solo hits, because it is aural perfection once again. Lasting fully a minute and a half, Tom Englund’s guitar is the centre of the universe. The bass rumbles, the drums crack, and the synths and tinkling piano notes caress. But the guitar sings, pleading with the heavens in slow, sombre misery, turning this scribe to a sheer mess. I rarely swear in reviews, but fuck me, this is otherworldly.
In direct contrast, ‘Leaden Saint’ is a behemoth that wouldn’t have been out of place on ‘The Atlantic’, thanks to the opening riff. And then, the heaviness parts and in comes a more introspective section that suddenly ushers in a guitar tone that’s instantly recognisable as classic ‘In Search Of Truth’ or ‘Recreation Day’ fare. Coupled with a slightly more sci-fi vibe from the keys, it is almost primeval in its effect on me; every time I hear it, I feel at home, at peace, and insanely happy. It’s another grower, but for all the right reasons, it becomes a firm favourite as time goes on.
Finally, ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’ concludes with ‘Run’, and ensures that you have to listen to the record from beginning to end. It is irresistible in its energy and full-on attitude, whilst also playing host to some of the most arresting synth sounds on the album. Do I detect a note of hope in the chorus too? The pace slows to allow more atmosphere to enter, and the chosen melody hints at something other than out-and-out despair. It’s the perfect way to round out this fabulous album, another masterpiece in their ever-increasing discography.
I’m well aware of the scores I have given this band on manofmuchmetal.com over the years. And I’ll take whatever criticism that you wish to throw at me. However, I stand by my reviews because there is no other band on this planet that affects me so profoundly on so many levels. And, going back to the original point I made at the beginning of this review, since the current line-up have been together, I cannot fault a single second of the music these guys have created. To these ears, ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’ is damn-near flawless in every way. It is special. It is magic. And it contains the essence of what I love about heavy metal and what I love about this band in particular. There is no other possible conclusion – ‘Escape Of The Phoenix’ is a dark, melodic, emotional, and heavy slab of metal perfection.
The Score of Much Metal: 100%
Further reviews from 2021:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: