Sound — 7
One of the longest-standing bands from the Gothenburg death metal scene, Dark Tranquillity have retained one of the most solid sonic imprints, and depending on your opinion of the band and its music, has either been rock-solid in its greatness, or starting to get bland compared to the evolution of their peers in bands such as In Flames (whose vocalist, Anders Friden, was once a member of this band) and At The Gates. The band's sound has actually aged quite well, and they still manage to sound modern even after all these years. Mikael Stanne's vocals still carry a lot of potency, either as growled death metal vocals or his brooding cleans, while guitarist Niklas Sundin (who performs all of the guitars on this album as founding member Martin Henriksson announced his departure prior to the recording sessions for "Atoma") plays some incredibly beefy riffs and melodic leads over a rhythm section of Anders Jivarp on drums and new bassist Anders Iwers (who will be familiar to fans of the absolutely excellent band Tiamat), all while Martin Brandstrom's keyboards add an atmospheric layer to everything without getting cheesy.
Eleven albums into one's career, it can be kind of hard to come up with an effective opening track that serves as a proper "mission statement," but "Encircled" kicks things off with a really big bang, with some of the closest ties to the band's classic death metal past present in the main verse riffs and Stanne's brutal vocals. Niklas plays a brief but sweet solo in the song, and there are plenty of huge atmospheres through the choruses, and it's all very epic and grandiose. Following this is the album's title track, which uses more morose clean guitars and Stanne's clean vocals. Both of these tracks are a pretty good indication of the style of the album, with the majority of the material falling into one of the two categories: straight-up death metal or atmospheric melodic death with clean vocals. Niklas' riffs propel tunes like "Neutrality" and "The Pitiless," while many of the songs have him playing washes of beefy power chords and clean arpeggios. He gets some quite notable lead guitar moments in tunes like "Forward Momentum" and the intro of "When the World Screams." The band's bass and drum sound are excellent throughout, fitting in perfectly with the music around them, rarely overplaying. Martin Brandstrom's keyboard playing also rarely overplays or pokes out from the background, but his supporting role is felt on tracks like "Atoma" and "Force of Hand," which would feel much more bare without his presence.
The production is good in terms of layering and arranging, though the mixing and mastering is quite a bit louder than I'm comfortable with. Even the band's more melodic, soft moments leave little breathing room, still sounding quite boomy and bass-heavy. While Anders Jivarp's drum playing is excellent, he's mixed loud enough to almost be audibly clipping at times. And the guitars often bury the keyboards and bass in the mix to the point that there are times where the whole mix seems to be just one big wash of noise.
Loud production aside, the playing and songwriting on this album are great. There's a good flow going on with the tempos and transitions from dark and heavy to softer and morose. It's a bit of a shame that there aren't more high-tempo death metal tracks like "Encircled" and "Neutrality," though. The rest of the tracks do have a tendency to kind of blend with one another after a few listens, and sometimes it can be kind of difficult to tell where you are on the album.
Lyrics — 7
As is the norm with the band, Mikael Stanne wrote the lyrics to this album. As usual, the lyrics deal with a lot of dark, emotional issues and a sort of theme of fighting for yourself. Sometimes, the lyrics almost seem to come off as a little bit political, as in the title track's opening verse: "I will not play along/With things I find unfair/I will not mount defences/Against unjust attacks/This land was never given/We built this on our own/Insanity dependant/Whether we rise or fall/Whether we rise or we fall/One for the night, one for uncontrolled," though there are many ways one can interpret the lyrics. They're fairly well-written lyrics as well, and even have a tendency to come off as a bit inspirational, in contrast to the dark and somber tone of the album, such as this passage from "The Pitiless": "Give up or recount them/The days of your life/The truth was of essence when time was alive/There is no incentive to give in to the absurd/Reality and comfort live forever to oppose."
Stanne's vocal ability is also fairly excellent, as is expected from him as he's been the most constant vocalist in the band's lineup. The inclusion of his clean vocals on this album is welcome, as a break from his absolutely relentless harsh vocals, and I dare say he has a better clean vocal sound than his contemporaries in In Flames. But his harsh vocals are what the album largely relies on, and he's still leaps and bounds better than a lot of vocalists in this genre, with an almost blackened edge to them. His enunciation is rather clear throughout the album, despite how absolutely brutal his vocals get at times. The only criticism I really have of his vocals is that they do have a tendency to get a bit monotonous after a while, but part of that has to do with the production as well.
Overall Impression — 7
Despite being one of the longest-running bands in the melodic death metal scene, it's clear that Dark Tranquillity are not running out of steam any time soon. They've managed to put out a rather good album quite late into their career, and that's a feat that not a lot of other bands can manage. It's not a perfect release at all, and the production was quite a bit off-putting considering that there are bands on the scene now that have a similar sound to this band that seem to do a better job of mixing (Omnium Gatherum immediately springs to mind), but of all the things to complain about on this record, this one's pretty minor. Even though the album has a tendency to drag on a bit, these are some good songs, and I'd definitely recommend checking out this album if you're a Dark Tranquillity fan or just someone looking for some classic melodic death metal. And if you were a fan of the "Character" album, this is an album that certainly feels like a worthy successor of sorts to that album, with a very similar sense of structure and sound. This album certainly has one of the best opening tracks from any similar band in the genre for a while, and if "Encircled" doesn't get you headbanging right out of the gate, this is probably not an album for you.