Michael Amott - 21st Century Schizoid Man

A vegetarian punk who loves classic metal, Arch Enemy's guitarist, like his band Arch Enemy, has all the extreme music bases neatly covered. On the eve of the release of their finest album yet, MaF catches up with the unassuming virtuoso.

Fact: Michael Amott is just about as good as it gets in the increasingly cluttered world of heavy metal guitaring. His work on his band’s (that’s Arch Enemy if you haven’t been paying attention this past decade) latest album, Khaos Legions, is nothing short of exemplary, and is something I wanted to discuss with him when the good people at Century Media gave me a chance to speak to him on behalf of you, the good people of Metal as Fuck. But, being the professional I am, I decided to actually have a chat about the work at hand as well. So, Michael, Khaos Legions… it seems to me that, though culmination is the wrong word because that sounds like this might be your final album, that KL really is the pinnacle of everything you’ve been trying to achieve with Arch Enemy thus far?

“Culmination… that’s a good word.” He’s laughing, but he doesn’t sound too sure. It’s the wrong word, I reply. But you know what I mean.

“Yes. Yes, and you’re pretty much right. It is a culmination. For a start, this album is the end product of four years of writing and refining. Usually we go into pre-production for an album two months before we record; we go in, we write everything; that’s good also, what it brings is a snapshot of the band at that particular moment in time. But this was definitely a good way of writing. It’s also definitely the best thing we could have done in the way that everything has come together in terms of sounds, lyrics and image.”

I’m interested that you mention the image there. The press shots I’ve seen, with the band garbed in pseudo paramilitary/revolutionary uniforms, is certainly the strongest image they’ve portrayed to date, It also seems to tie in with some of the more politically charged lyrics on the album, for instance the ‘No Gods, No Masters’ refrain from the song of the same name that hints at an anarchist/socialist crust punk manifesto. Or am I reading too much into things?

“No, you’re right. We thought about the image very hard when we came together for pre-production. Again, usually that side of things is done in a very rushed manner, and very cheaply. This time we were able to do it properly. For the lyrics, yes; I was a punk before I got into metal; I’m too young to have been into the Sex Pistols but I grew up with Discharge, GBH and the Exploited before I got into thrash and death metal, and that has stayed with me. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was fourteen; but we also were keen as a band to write about the stuff that we actually talk about as people, you know? We’re all Atheists, so to sing about God and the Devil, it’s like the Easter Bunny for us, a fantasy thing.”

It’s unusual for a straight-up death metal band to focus on these issues in their lyrics.

“Haha! Exactly. There’s a song on the record called City of the Dead, that people automatically think is about Zombies. But we’d seen an article in a magazine which prompted us to do some research, about people in one of the poorest parts of Cairo who are living in other people’s graves, and in tombs. Whole families. These people are so poor. Also while we were tracking the vocals for Yesterdays Dead and Gone, the whole democracy thing was blowing up in Egypt and Tunisia. We went back and rewrote the lyrics to reflect on those situations. Another instance is a song called Cruelty Without Beauty, which is about vivisection”

So we’ve established that there’s a bit more thought in the songwriting process here, a salty socialism in the lyrics that doesn’t usually grace the death metal genre. But musically I’m detecting perhaps a bigger dose of classic metal in the mix than you’ve featured before. Is that true or just wishful listening on my part?

“Well I guess so, yes. It’s always been one of the ideas behind the band to bring that style of classic metal playing together with faster, thrash drumming.”

I think I detect some heavy Michael Schenker stylistics in some of the playing here?

“Yeah. Although you say Schenker but if you listen to a song like Under Black Flags We March there’s a real Judas Priest feel, I think.”

Does the presence of such a strong stylistic frontwoman as Angela Gossow give you the freedom as musicians to work that feel into the music?

“Definitely. She’s everything you say she is, a powerful focus for the fans, but she’s a great singer as well. Whatever we play will sound like Arch Enemy because of her. If we played some of our material and she sang a ‘normal’ vocal, well…”

You’d end up sounding like HammerFall?

“And nobody wants that. It’s fine to tribute those people who are your influences, but you have to do it in a way that adds to the sums of things, that moves things forward.”

I’m very interested in your thoughts on this.  Because the very last moment on the album, where you hit the note and let it hang in the air, is pure eighties metal. It’s great. Amott is laughing again.

“Not many people play like that, by which I mean the whole death metal thing is riffing; when they play lead it’s all about shredding but not many people can hit that note and hold it, and let it sing through the air! My brother (Christopher, the bands second guitarist) and I can luckily both do it, so we do it a lot!”

We ‘re here in 2011, talking about Arch Enemy’s latest and greatest album. The last time I spoke to Michael was in a pub in London’s Camden town in 2000 when he was touring in one of his other bands, Spiritual Beggars in support of their excellent Ad Astra album. At the time, I muse – certainly in England – Spiritual Beggars were regarded as a better shot at the big time than Arch Enemy. Is he surprised at the way Arch Enemy seemingly exploded away from the Beggars shortly after our meeting?”

“Yes, I was surprised. But at that time Spiritual Beggars kind of fell apart; our singer left, and in Wages of Sin Arch Enemy had just made a massive leap. Angela had joined the band, and, although each album has been better than the one before it, that jump was the biggest in quality that the band has ever made. We’ll go on getting better, but that was the biggest leap, so I guess things fell into place and the timing was just right for Arch Enemy.”

Those of you in the know about such things will be aware that before any of these events Amott was one of the guitarists in death/grind Gods Carcass – it’s his mercurial playing that gilds their finest hour, Heartwork – a band that have as have so many of their vintage recently, been playing some reformation shows over the last couple of years. Any similar plans coming up.

“I don’t think so. I’ve told the boys I’m going to be pretty busy for this next campaign. We’ll be doing a lot of touring.”

Including Australia?

‘I don’t know. We’ve played there many times, always have a great time there, the fans are great. But we don’t have a booking agent down there so it’s a bit difficult. But I certainly hope so.”

So do we Michael, so do we. I guess in the meantime we’ll just have to content ourselves with Khaos Legions – not a bad consolation as it goes…