Certain styles of music seem incompatible with long careers. Death metal is high on that list, with the focus on brutality and shredded vocal chords standing at odds with the rigors of aging. If it's true that people tend to mellow with age, it would stand to reason that death metal would not be populated by elder statesmen. Yet it seems to be that conventional wisdom, once again, is wrong. Death metal finds itself seeped in figures from the early days still cranking out new music. It may seldom live up to the memories of the glory days, but the mere fact that they still believe in the music enough to stay creative says something about death metal as an art form.
Johnny Hedlund, leader of Unleashed, has been churning out records for more than twenty years. As a member of Nihilist, who would later become death-n-roll legends Entombed, he was there on the front lines as Swedish death metal was created. All these years later, he's still making music in that same vein, giving little credence to the shifts that the genre has undergone since its genesis. “Odalheim” doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, nor is there any reason to. Early Swedish death metal feels like an entirely different genre than what we commonly hear these days, so by standing still, Unleashed has unwittingly become separated from the masses of bands who bore those influences.
Starting that album with tremelo picking and blast beats, as “Fimbulwinter” does, is deceiving, and a reminder of why so much of death metal has become stagnant. Those passages blur into cloaks of noise, hiding the more interesting aspects stuck between those bursts. When not succumbing to the cliché, the guitars are able to recapture some of that old Swedish sound, albeit minus the buzz-saw guitars those early records were known for. This is one case where technology has certainly improved, but whether or not that is a good thing is up for debate. The sounds throughout “Odalheim” are clinical at times, everything feeling too clean to truly be as aggressive as the music needs to be. There's nothing in the way of atmosphere to be found, dulling the edge of the music.
Like many death metal albums, “Odalheim” struggles to give the songs identity. They come and go, all burnished with solid performances, but none manage to stand out from the pack. The tempos are similar, the riffs follow the same patterns, and the vocal performance keeps squarely in the rhythm section, again leaving the songs devoid of much in the way of melody. That's left for the solos to take care of, which they come close to achieving. The lead work on “Odalheim” is impressive, fitting in doses of melody and technique that elevate those sections of the songs. They stand out from the riffs, welcome interlopers breaking up the routine.
That isn't to say that what Unleashed is doing here is bad. It's all perfectly acceptable death metal, but in a world where thousands of death metal albums are being released every year, it's not enough. When they came on the scene twenty years ago, this kind of music was state of the art, something new and novel. Today, however, it's all been heard before. We've seen so much growth in the genre that doses of nostalgia need to excel to be anything but passing reminders of the old days. Sadly, this isn't one of those times we wouldn't rather reach for one of the classics for a blast from the past.