Soundtrack For The End Times
Review by Greg on November 27, 2023.
Call me uncultured, but I never delved into Mercenary before recent times. While I'm rediscovering their classics, they just released their 8th full-length, although it looks like they already weren't coming from their most successful streak, and the 10 years of gap from the last one is massive, to top it off. How does this new Soundtrack For The End Times (great title) hold up, then?
Well, for starters, despite the long wait, it's undoubtedly a Mercenary album: the Danish crew offers once again their almost trademark blend of groove and death metal with melodic sensibilities and keyboards well at the forefront. Similar to what was noted about its immediate predecessors, the power influence witnessed in Architect Of Lies or The Hours That Remain is basically gone, while the metalcore elements keep their prominent place in the sound. It shouldn't really come as a surprise, considering that a good half of that lineup isn't in the band anymore, and probably of no help is the fact that vocalist René Pedersen at times seems like the best Chester Bennigton impersonator I've come across so far (even if I'm likely the only one around here not seeing it as a detriment), but the whole band seems to have embraced a simplified recipe, arguably playing to their current strengths.
Indeed, pretty much par for the course of Mercenary's current incarnation, Soundtrack For The End Times is formulaic to a certain degree, as exemplified by the seemingly incessant pursuit of the Catchy Chorus™, even when the band attempts a The Haunted-like heavier fare ('Through This Blackened Hatred', 'From The Ashes Of The Fallen'), and I swear most of them, while not bad, would fit in something like Atreyu's "Congregation Of The Damned" with no issues. 'Become The Flame' stands out a little bit by being the more Trivium-esque of the lot (funnily enough not the one actually hosting Matt Heafy on vocals) and for its somewhat Devin Townsend (?)-like refrain, and I can definitely see myself returning to 'Heart Of The Numb' or 'Anthem For The Anxious' from time to time. I could have lived without the occasional (guest!) spoken word parts in late 2023, but here we are. As per usual with a production involving Jacob Hansen, the sound is also extremely polished, even past the 'sterile' threshold, but nonetheless giving the right emphasis to the never intrusive keys. Everything is more or less average and perfectly interchangeable, or so it would seem...
...and then, at some point in the tracklist (fairly early actually), comes 'Where Darkened Souls Belong'. Man, where did this come from? I'm not familiar with Mercenary's whole catalogue, and yet I'm pretty confident it will rank among the best songs they've ever written. It's kinda strange since, at its core, it's not terribly different from its peers, yet everything in these 7 minutes is honestly well-crafted, from the keyboards building up the intro until the massive groove emerges, to the spot-on harmonies introducing the solo (easily the best of the album), and even a chorus that's not only catchy, but also accompanied by a second one that's simply perfect. I've replayed this single track so many times it's not even funny. Truly a 'lightning in a bottle' moment within the LP.
However, all things considered, I guess it's safe to say that Mercenary's better days, with the Sandager bros at the helm, are behind them. Soundtrack For The End Times is consistently solid, if mostly unimpressive, flows well enough for a while, but a whole hour of the same stuff is really a lot to stomach, and for all intents and purposes it could have stopped at 'From The Ashes Of The Fallen', as the remaining tracks don't add much (well, strictly speaking they do, like the vaguely thrashy detours à la At The Gates of 'Black Blood Soil' or the orchestral break in 'Beyond The Waves', but not in quality terms). 'Where Darkened Souls Belong' alone surely deserves a listen, and kicked up the album's overall rating a notch, but you can still try the whole thing if none of the bands mentioned in this review made you throw up a bit in your mouth.
Rating: 7 out of 10455