Sweden seems to churn out melodic death metal bands the way Hollywood churns out douchebags. One of the more recent products of the Swedish melodeath sweatshop is a group of early-twenty-somethings that calls itself Zonaria. These youngsters don’t peddle wares fashioned in Gothenburg, however, but cater to the same patrons as fellow melodic death vendors Scar Symmetry and Hypocrisy, whose influences are echoed throughout The Cancer Empire. The Scar Symmetry effect is no surprise as Jonas Kjellgren and Per Nilson provided the mixing and production, respectively, on Zonaria’s debut album, Infamy and the Breed.
The songs here are presented in fairly standard format, composed mostly of heavy, choppy low-end riffing accentuated by floating guitar harmonies and atmospheric keyboards/samples. The results often border on symphonic metal reminiscent of Dimmu Borgir and Old Man’s Child. Where the riffing is particularly heavy the contrast works very well, as on “The Icon and the Faceless” and “Termination Process,” the latter tune being cast directly from the late-era Hypocrisy mold. Sometimes, though, the formula is less effective, as on “Contra Mundum” and “At War With the Inferior” during which the ethereal harmonizing and airy leads seem to be less interwoven than inserted and become a bit redundant by song’s end.
Guitarists Simon Berglund and Emil Nyström have taken impressive strides in the riff race since their debut effort, pacing the songs on The Cancer Empire with alternately frenzied and deliberate, crunchy rhythmic figures that effectively propel the overarching melodies. While the album is beholden to the general formula outlined above, every once in a while, Zonaria throw a little pinch of spice into the pot. For example, the synthesized violin run in “Praise the Eradication” is a small but very cool and ultimately integral piece of the song’s frenetic pace and conveyance of a broader urgency. By and large, though, the synth is kept reined in, contributing mostly to ambience and rarely to outright melody. In fact, usually it is manifested in faux-choral or -string backing in service of expansive atmosphere.
Front man, Berglund, has shown on this effort that he is developing a more mature sense of his craft. Notably, he has cut back some on the guitar gimmickry, such as the increasingly hackneyed use of Wylde-ish squeals that ran rampant on Zonaria’s first LP. Berglund has also foregone the clean alt-metal vocals flirted with on that record, prudently focusing on a more earnest amalgamation of rasps and growls. Although the lead axeman’s soloing is sparse and, at times, feels as if it comes from closer to the textbook than the heart, his lead melodies are abundant, well-executed and evocative.
Famed Swedish melodeath producer, Fredrik Nilsson, has engineered a crisp, clear mix on The Cancer Empire through which each primary instrument is allowed to spread its wings. Unfortunately, the synths are not always afforded the same respect and are often buried in the mix, robbing several passages of the epic feel so essential to the album’s best tracks. It is also worth mentioning that, as is the case with much modern metal, the production on this album may be too clean, too polished, too… safe. Several tracks, while heavy-ish, seem to lack the viable threat of aural implosion that veritably defines metal and that other tracks on the album have. Of course, some listeners will find this to be a most amenable approach.
The Cancer Empire is far from flawless but is enjoyable nonetheless and should appeal to those who do their headbanging in the realm of melodic metal. And, while Zonaria’s sophomore effort suggests both progress and ample room to grow, these guys are still quite young and have the backing of some of the big names in the genre, so it is likely that their best is yet to come.