Sunday, 29 March 2015

Europe's 'War of Kings' - Album Review

Despite what popular opinion might sometimes tell you, Europe rock - and they always have! While the mega-hit The Final Countdown is the only song known by most people outside the band's circle of fans, the band have always written classy melodic hard rock songs that deserve to be heard by more people. Since reforming in 2003, the band have been working harder than ever. Five studio albums have been released and countless shows have been performed in that time and their latest release, tenth studio album War of Kings, shows that the band still have more to say. The band's modern sound has a harder edge than their 1980s heyday, and focuses more on guitarist John Norum's bluesy riffs and solos than on big keyboard leads. That being said, keyboards still play an important part in the band's sound and Mic Michaeli, along with being probably the second most prolific songwriter of the band behind frontman Joey Tempest, still makes his presence heard here. Lots of retro keyboard sounds are used, and the rumbling organ that envelops many of the songs here has more than a little hint of early Deep Purple about it. Sound-wise, this album sounds like a mix of the band's previous two studio releases: 2009's Last Look at Eden and 2012's Bag of Bones. Last Look at Eden had a very polished modern rock sound, while Bag of Bones was in contrast very raw. War of Kings is the best of both worlds in my opinion, with some songs benefiting from a smoother production, while others let rip in all their raw glory. Praise has to be heaped on producer Dave Cobb for achieving this mix of sounds. Tempest said that the band wanted to use Cobb for this album after hearing his work with the blues rockers Rival Sons (a band who I will admit I have never taken to), and they certainly made the right choice picking him to sit behind the desk. This might be the best sounding Europe album ever, losing some of the murkiness Bag of Bones had without losing the rock punch that it also had. The mix of songs is also great. Europe always write good ballads, and a couple of those are thrown in here to sit alongside the short, punchy rock anthems and the longer, blues-based workouts. Tempest also said in an interview that this was the album the band have always wanted to make, and I am glad they finally got the chance to make it.

The album's hard-rocking title track opens things up with a huge grinding guitar riff backed up by some seriously retro organ sounds. The verses have some serious rock swagger, but it is during the chorus that the song really shines. The hooks here are huge, and Tempest's voice still sounds fantastic. He is one of those singers who almost sounds better now than he did at the outset of his career, and he still has the knack for a great vocal melody. Norum's solo is great here too. He has always been a big fan Gary Moore, and that shows here with some tasty bluesy licks that convey emotion as well as rock energy. Hole in my Pocket is next and creates one of the best opening one-two punches on a hard rock album in a while. This is a faster song that comes speeding out of the gate with a frantic Norum riff over a tight beat from long-time drummer Ian Haugland. Michaeli's organ dominates the chorus and gives it an early Whitesnake feel as Tempest belts out some really catchy vocal lines. The Second Day is a grower. It took hearing this song played live and the album on repeat a few times to really 'get' it, but since then I've loved it. The song's opening is quite haunting, but it soon explodes into an Eastern-tinged riff that feels like something late-period Led Zeppelin might have come up with. Haugland's heavy-handed drumming enhances that sound, but then the chorus takes hold and it becomes something different again. The keyboards dominate again, providing an almost-orchestral feel that really compliments Tempest's vocals. The Eastern themes return in Norum's solo, that has a really strange, almost tortured sound as it escapes from his fingers. Praise You is a little similar to the previous song, but focuses more on the band's blues influences. Despite the hard-hitting opening riff, the song is actually fairly laid back in places. The verses are dominated by John Levén's snaking bass lines, and the choruses maintain a vibe similar to that of a classic 1980s power ballad, but viewed through a blues lens. A short keyboard solo follows, but the real star of this song is Norum who's beautiful solo two-thirds of the way through is nothing short of stunning. Nothin' to Ya has a real Deep Purple vibe. The way the guitars and organ mix together is reminiscent of that band's early work. It does pale a little in comparison to the excellent four opening songs, but it is still enjoyable with a really excellent string pattern in the chorus and another great solo from Norum.

The next two songs remind me a little more of the band's earlier albums. California 405 has a distinct AOR vibe to it, with a laid back chorus and with less aggressive guitars overall. A nice organ riff provides the main musical motif throughout, and the chorus is very memorable despite how unassuming it is. This song reminds me a little bit of Kingdom of Desire-era Toto. Days of Rock 'n' Roll continues on this sound, mixing upbeat, catchy keyboards with simple guitar chords. This song in particular would have probably sounded at home on 1988's Out of this World, and overall is a little throwback to their older sound. When I saw the band live, this some came across really well, and everyone in attendance was really enjoying themselves to it. This song was clearly made for the live arena, and it works very well in that context. Children of the Mind returns to their now-familiar modern sound. The swirling, atmospheric verses contrast well against the epic, hard rocking choruses to create a really dynamic song with lots of character. Norum really lets rip here again, with a really crazy solo that is soon replaced by Michaeli's keyboards, to create something really special. He does not get many opportunities to show off, but when he does he really shows you what he can do. Rainbow Bridge is probably the album's weakest song. I do not feel that the Eastern-feel of the opening riff and verses really fits with the organ-drenched choruses. It is not a terrible song, but it fails to stand up against all the other excellent songs here. Angels (With Broken Hearts) gets things back on track. It is a really beautiful ballad with a solid bass melody and lots of excellent blues breaks from Norum. He is another one who has improved with age, and his playing is tasteful and always for the benefit of the song. Everyone performs really well on this song, and it all comes together perfectly to make something lovely. Tempest sings the song really well, with plenty of emotion in his voice, and Michaeli's keyboards are the icing on the cake. The album ends with the hard rocking Light It Up, which has a bit of a jam feel in places with lots of great instrumentation, riffs and melodies. The song has a great 'end of album' feel to it, and it builds to a great conclusion with lots of excellent musicianship. It is a song that continues to give and give, and it shows off the skills of the band members perfectly. Overall, War of Kings is another great album from Europe. They have managed to successfully reinvent themselves over the past decade and continue to impress with stellar albums and live shows. I am sure they will just continue doing the same for years to come.

The album was released on 2nd March 2015 via Hell & Back Recordings/UDR GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for War of Kings.

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