Thursday, 30 June 2016

Grand Magus' 'Sword Songs' - Album Review

Despite starting out as a doom band back in 1996 under the name 'Smack', Sweden's Grand Magus have become mainstays in the modern heavy metal world. While they have never really managed to break through into the big time, their consistent album releases and strong live shows have garnered them a good-sized cult following - especially in Europe. Last month saw the release of the band's eight studio album which is titled, rather blatantly, Sword Songs. Since the band's formation, they had been gradually moving away from their doom metal roots to a more 'heroic' sound that flies the flag for traditional metal from the past. This sound was fully realised on 2010's Hammer of the North and Grand Magus have not looked back since. 2012's The Hunt and 2014's Triumph and Power (the latter of which I reviewed here) contained the retro heavy metal vibe the band are now known for, and this continues on in Sword Songs. Take one part of Manowar's battle imagery and epic vision, one part of Judas Priest's razor-sharp metallic attitude, and one part of early Rainbow's slightly mystic atmosphere and you have something similar to Grand Magus' now-well established sound. This is not complex, and not overly original, but it is solid, enjoyable modern heavy metal that carries the torch for the classic sound of the genre. Some versions of the album even come with a cover of Deep Purple's Stormbringer (which is not as strong as it could be in truth!) that features Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars; Opeth) on keyboards. Keyboards are not the usual fare for the band however, as the classic power trio line-up of Grand Magus rely more on the sheer power of their riffs and in-your-face vocal melodies. Founding members Janne 'JB' Christoffersson and Mats 'Fox' Skinner, and newer recruit Ludwig Witt, are doing what they do best on this album. JB's teutonic guitar riffs and his powerful voice drive the band. While his voice does not have the range or individuality necessary to become a legend, he possess power which Grand Magus capitalises on. He may not be the most dynamic vocalist, but when he cranks up the power, there are few that can compete with him when singing this kind of music. He clearly tries to channel the late great Ronnie James Dio in places, and does not come far short of achieving this aim. Fox and Witt lock in well to form a tight and heavy rhythm section that suits JB's guitar style. The raw and uncomplicated production job from Nico Elgstrand, who has produced all of the band's albums from Hammer of the North onwards, really brings out the best in the rhythm section. Witt's drums, with their booming hollow sound, really benefit from Elgstrand's work and the album is all the better for it.

Opening with an Accept-style riff and a furious drum roll, the album gets off to a cracking start with Freja's Choice - a song which really sums up the band's modern sound perfectly. JB's voice rumbles in the verses, with plenty of gravitas. He seems to use a slightly lower than normal part of his voice here, and it works well with the heavy riffing. The song is not as anthemic as some of their more well- known numbers, but it packs a punch with Witt's dominant drums and plenty of strong riffs. The guitar solo even has a neo-classical tinge to it, while never becoming a speed-fest that so usually befalls that style. Varangian, which was released online prior to the album's release, opens with a heavy, but slightly folky, guitar melody that draws you in from the off. This song is much more immediately catchy than the previous song, and possesses one of the best choruses on the album. While the lyrics and style of the fist-pumping chorus are very close to Manowar's patented style, it is still hugely enjoyable and is sure to put a smile on the face of many a metalhead. Despite the very 'metal' themes throughout Forged in Iron - Crowned in Steel, the song opens out with a delicate acoustic guitar motif, but it is not long before a fast, steamroller of a riff takes over as Witt's simple drums lead the charge. While not being as instant as the previous song, this is still a very enjoyable tune and one that sticks out on first listen. While the song is mostly quite fast, with another singable chorus, there is a slower, doomy section part-way through which is definitely a throwback to the band's early sound. The Sabbathy feel of this part adds some variation to the song, and the album, and keeps things from becoming stale. Born for Battle (Black Dog of Broc√©liande) opens with a strange guitar sound that sounds like the droning of a wasp, but this does not last long before another slab of retro metal starts up. The song's verses are the high point here, with two distinct parts coming together to create something powerful. They start off faster, with a pacey riff, before slowing down and injecting a bit more doom with JB's vocals rumbling along with Fox's bass. The chorus, which like the last song relies on the repeating of the song's title, does not grab the attention as it should. Some of the choruses on this album can all roll into one after a while, and a little more variation would be welcome. Master of the Land is one of the heaviest songs on the album, and relies on more dark Sabbathy flourishes fused with Accept's speed metal tendencies. Despite another simple chorus, this one actually hits the spot as JB delivers some stellar vocals, and Fox harmonies well to create a surprisingly big sound. It is songs like this that see JB channeling Dio, and this is the sort of song I can imagine the great man singing! There is also a memorable guitar solo, with some lovely harmonies and strong melodies.

After the more epic nature of the previous song, Last One to Fall gets back to the more straight ahead metal the band are known for. It has a good headbanging pace, and the guitar harmony opening is very strong (although how they would recreate it live is anyone's guess). This song feels like a back-to-basics bit of metal, but it still feels fresh. The chorus is more inventive here than on the last few songs, with unique melodies and some more excellent vocals from JB. The song does slow down as it progresses, and some subtle keyboards (particularly on the choruses) provide a moody atmosphere. Again, the song possesses a memorable guitar solo, and helps to complete it. The song has a very individual feel to it, and that makes it stand out and interesting. Frost and Fire will please those who were hoping for another anthemic number. While this is not as overt and obvious as the Manowar-inspired Varangian, this song still has the potential to become a future live staple. The chorus is genuinely excellent, with lots of soaring vocal melodies and lovely little breaks of lead guitar to fill the gaps. It is an action-packed song, and one of my favourites on the album. As with all Grand Magus albums, Sword Songs has a strange instrumental interlude on it. It is titled Hugr and is actually more memorable than usual. The swirling effects really help to bring out the best in the acoustic guitar melodies, and the two together actually makes for quite a foreboding atmosphere. I am not sure why Grand Magus always include these songs, but maybe it is to create some light and shade with their lack of ballads! Hugr leads into the album's final song Every Day There's a Battle to Fight which is a slow burning song with a grinding riff yet a big atmosphere. This is not a particularly heavy number, with exception to the riff, and the chorus has an almost mournful feel without the fist-pumping attributes the band usually employs. This works well and, when mixed with the subtle orchestrations added to the song, makes for another memorable song that is something a bit different from the band's norm. Some versions of the album have a couple of bonus tracks: In for the Kill and the aforementioned cover of Stormbringer. Both of these songs are decent, and add some length to the album (which is short as just over 34 minutes long, not that that is a complaint - so many albums are too long these days!). There are definitely better covers of Stormbringer out there though, and I must admit to being slightly disappointed with this rendition. Overall, Sword Songs is another album from Grand Magus that establishes them as one of the best bands out there that play this sort of metal. While this band will never be superstars, they have found their niche and are very good at what they do.

The album was released on 13th May 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official lyric video for Varangian.

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