Joakim Aukea

The debut EP “Duality I” from Swedish metallers We Are To Blame denotes the birth of a new musical act from the marriage of melodic riff-driven Power metal with dramatic poppy female vocals. It’s easy to think this album was made for the Symphonic/Gothic Metal fan demographic, but let me break down the reason this record has something in store for everyone.

First of All, the story of how this trio came together and how they audaciously presented that story to the press is extremely interesting in its own right. Johan Karlsson posted an ad that bluntly stated he was looking for a female pop vocalist to join a metal project. ِAlice Hartvig, who by then had not been involved with metal music whatsoever, decided to take on the challenge she was fearful of yet thrilled for, and the results were magical, to say the least. The trio was completed when second axeman Urban Granbacke joined them. On the first track, Breathe, we can immediately hear the similarities to existing female-fronted bands and subgenre movements that happened from the late 90s to the early 2000s when Symphonies and gothic aesthetics were taking the metal world by storm. 

What draws these guys apart for me though, is the uncompromising nature of the songwriting. For example, electronic synths are playing a lead melody with guitars taking on the rhythm role at the song’s intro, then they are followed by a main guitar riff during the verse, an approach other bands would dismiss in fear of taking the spotlight from the vocals. The pre-chorus of the song sounds like a strong breakdown because of the bone-crushing drum and bass lines and Alice’s strong and well-supported chest voice. Her range is wide and her style is implemented into the music the same way many modern metal singers do, meaning that the focus is mainly on the chest register, while grit, rasp and head voice are all sparse and used smartly. The amazing guitar solo that follows the bridge hones the expertise these guys have got up their sleeves. The second track, Losing Rhythm, further proves that this choice of using the chest register as the main way of singing serves this particular brand of modern metal better than any other vocal style. The song begins with a powerful melodic riff over a Steve Harris-esque bassline – just when you thought these guys are all about modernity they hit you with a traditional and classic metal aesthetic. The beautiful way Karlsson plays his main guitar riff after the chorus won’t escape your head for days, and the vocals themself have a very theatrical feeling to them this time. In the midsection of this song, there’s a great breakdown with growled vocals which all came as a beautiful surprise, as I wasn’t expecting any harsh vocals on the record. 

The following track, My Release, begins with a synth line that intertwines with a guitar and bass line in the same vein as bands like Amaranthe and Fear Factory do, except that the verses have more theatrical vocals sung against a backdrop of grandiose riffs in a way that makes you feel like these guys don’t wanna compromise any heaviness. The chorus of this song show’s some of Alice’s second passage and use of the mixed register in an effortless transition from the low chest notes of the verse, and the falsetto/chanting portion that serves as a pre-chorus. This adds so many emotional qualities and gives the chorus an extra dramatic kick that you will get addicted to. There’s another breakdown with some growls and drum hammer blasts this time around and I’m more than happy with the number of headbanging moments in this record, so far. The fourth track, The Change, has a technical main riff that is mixed so well making us hear a distinction between the guitars and synths playing it. During the chorus, there is a chord progression that sounds beautiful and sophisticated while the vocals sound easy and relaxed. To top it off, the track has a sensual and impactful guitar solo that struck me just at the right moment. 

The fifth track, Falling Down, has a very Alternative Metal-sounding intro and the song is the first instance we hear Alice using a heady-mixed voice and the actual head register during the verses. It reminded me of the Charlotte Wessels era of Delain and Within Temptation. The chorus takes us back to the chest voice and growls in a manner where both show complementation of each other, rather than contrast. There is an extended growled bridge followed by Alice’s wailing with distorted and raspy cleans, which serves to show she has a wide emotional range not just a good range in octaves. The sixth and final track, All I Want To Say, features Evergrey’s singer Tom Englund and begins with some melancholic piano that is shortly followed by some punchy riffs. Tom’s vocals contrast those of Alice beautifully and theatrically. While Tom is no stranger to duets, I felt like he was pouring his heart out here and sounding broken and down more than in any other instance. The mid-to-slow tempo of the track brings more Delain vibes, especially from their Lucidity era. The way Alice harmonizes with Tom showed us a myriad of possibilities for metal singers to work with the chest register as their main style, and putting into consideration how this is Alice’s first metal record, I feel like she has guaranteed herself a spot among all the great female vocalists of today’s metal scene. The strongest aspect of the track is probably its piano line that sometimes takes the lead and other times lays back to give the guitars a chance to shine, which in itself is another testament to how well this album was mixed and mastered. 

In conclusion, the planning and execution of this record are much better than anyone would have expected when they hear that someone is about to mix modern metal with pop vocals. The amount of vocal acrobatics, heavy riffs behind the singing, and the amount of emotional/theatrical moments show us that many stylistic approaches and minor gimmicks can be implemented into metal without taking away from its core elements and the parts that make it what it is. Johan Karlsson, Alice Hartvig, and Urban Granbacke have put out one of the best debut records ever, and dare I say one of the best Symphonic/Gothic offerings of 2022.

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