Thursday, 12 February 2015

Jørn Lande & Trond Holter's 'Dracula: Swing of Death' - Album Review

Jørn Lande (Ark; Beyond Twilight; Masterplan) is one of the most revered singers in modern heavy metal. He has been around for a number of years now, and has contributed to many excellent albums by lots of different bands during his career. Sounding like a mixture of Ronnie James Dio and David Coverdale, Lande's powerful vocals have gained him plenty of recognition in the metal world. Whether this is as a member of a band; guesting on projects such as Avantasia; his collaborations with other artisits, such as his albums with Russell Allen; or on his string of successful solo albums - Lande has found praise wherever he goes. His last couple of solo albums however have not seen quite as much love. 2012's Bring Heavy Rock to the Land and 2013's Traveller are a little more formulaic than his previous solo albums, and are not as catchy or as powerful as albums like 2006's The Duke. That being said, neither album was awful, but you just felt that Lande had slipped into a bit of a rut, and lost some of his inspiration. The constant changing of band line-up, and losing the majority of his long-term musicians certainly must have contributed to this, as his writing partnership with Jørn Viggo Lofstad produced many excellent songs. Traveller was the first time that Lande worked with Trond Holter (Wig Wam; Jorn), and despite some good songs, you never felt that this was going to be a partnership to beat Lande's previous ones. However, seeing them live at the Cambridge Rock Festival last year made me realise how good a guitarist Holter is, and this thought is what has stuck with me since. This new album, Dracula: Swing of Death, sees a new collaboration for Lande. Rather than releasing this under the usual 'Jorn' name, this album has been released under the name 'Jørn Land3 & Trond Holter present...', showing that this is to be seen more as a collaboration between two musicians rather than as another Lande solo album. Lande and Holter have really upped their game here, and this is the best album Lande has been involved with for some time. With Lande handling the vocals and Holter handling the guitars and keyboards, this is a real collaborative effort. Backing the two up are bassist Bernt Jansen (Wig Wam; Jorn) and drummer Per Morten Bergseth (Blindfold; Sonic Debris; Fracture). Lena Fløitmoen also appears on some of the album's songs duetting with Lande, and this mix of vocal styles really works well and adds a lot to the overall sound of the album.

The album starts with the theatrical Hands of Your God that slowly builds around some renaissance acoustic guitar lines and Lande's distinct voice. 'Theatrical' is a good word for this whole album, and as well as sounding like a classic metal album, there are also huge chunks of artists like Meat Loaf - you almost expect to read Jim Steinman's name somewhere in the credits! Hands of Your God is a glorified intro track, and it goes a great mood setting the scene with some marching metal rhythms and slow-burning lead guitar patterns from Holter. After some rather clichéd rain and thunder sounds, the second song Walking on Water starts, and this is vintage Lande. Holter's guitar riff here is massive, and the song is a real metal classic. The verses steam along with Lande's snarling, melodramatic vocals leading the way. but it is at the chorus where the song really takes off. The strings that back up the guitars are excellent and give the song an epic feel. Lande always excels in a powerful chorus, and this is one of his best for a long time. The instrumental section is excellent too, with a real folk metal feel to the lead guitars. Swing of Death has a totally different feel to it. The beginning is almost lounge music, with a laid-back, jaunty piano line that Lande sings over taking centre stage. The rock does return before long, but that jaunty vibe continues throughout. This song is something different to what Lande has done before, but he manages to make it work without it sounding contrived. Holter's guitar (and piano) work once again shines and his solo section towards the end is enjoyable and really fits with the mood of the song. Masquerade Ball is again piano driven, but this time it is much more in the traditional metal vein. After the upbeat previous song, this song feels dark - which works well. Little bursts of flamenco guitar help to add to that spooky mood, and the song soon launches into full-blown metal mode, with some more excellent melodramatic vocals and huge distorted guitars. That flamenco feel never leaves though, and Holter really lets rip with it over the top of his heavier, distorted guitars with good effect. Save Me is a much more conventional metal song, and the first one where we get to hear Lande duet with Fløitmoen. She actually dominates this song, and has a voice that holds it's own against Lande's. The piano and folk elements remain here, although greatly reduced that the previous couple of songs. Despite the song's heaviness, there remains a certain melacholy to it, which is greatly helped by Fløitmoen's performance.

River of Tears is up next and this is real bread and butter for Lande. The mid-paced, crushing metal anthem is what he has been writing for years, and this is the latest in a line of excellent songs in that vein. Fløitmoen's vocals add greatly to this song too, and her performance on the soaring chorus is a great contrast to Lande's headbanging verses. About halfway through, the song takes a slight turn, bringing back the jaunty piano from earlier in the album to good effect. Holter then really lets rip with a powerful, yet melodic guitar solo. Most of his solos on this album are long and enjoyable, and it makes you realise that this album is just as much his as Lande's - which is probably why they decided to release it the way that they did. Queen of the Dead is another classic Lande rocker. The verses are a little more down-beat, which highlights Lande's powerful vocals perfectly. He really is one of the best singers in modern metal that is keeping the classic way of singing metal alive. He is the Dio of the 21st Century, and his varied performance here shows that. The choruses are, of course, much heavier and more powerful than the verses - but this only helps to make them stand out and sound awesome. Into the Dark is another duet between Lande and Fløitmoen, and it is a real rocker! Holter's skittish riff really suits the mood and gets the blood pumping, which is then helped by the performances from the two singers. Again, Fløitmoen takes the lead on the choruses which helps to give them a smooth feel. I am surprised that Lande gave her so much time at the microphone, but I am glad that he did as she really adds a lot to this album. Maybe not every lead singer has an ego the size of a house! Talking of stepping to the side, True Love Through Blood is an instrumental piece that really showcases Holter's skills. Whether he is churning out a powerful riff, a shredding solo, or even playing the piano - Holter shines. His partnership with Lande on Traveller clearly had not quite gelled yet, but on this album they have written something rather special. For an instrumental, it is still highly melodic and memorable, with lots of different sections and guitar pyrotechnics to enjoy. The album comes to an end with Under the Gun, which is another solid song and ensures the album ends on a high. In some ways, this is the most epic and melodic song on the album which again features Fløitmoen prominently, but Lande is the real star with his dominating vocal performance. Overall, this is an excellent album, full of masterful performances from all concerned. Those concerned that Lande was losing muse need look no further than here to find out that he most certainly has not!

The album was released on 26th January 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Walking on Water.


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