Thursday, 22 December 2016

Pretty Maids' 'Kingmaker' - Album Review

Denmark's Pretty Maids are one of those bands who have been remarkably consistent since forming in 1981. Since their debut album Red, Hot and Heavy from 1984, which is a bit of a minor classic in the metal world, the band have been releasing albums at a fairly regular rate ever since without making any drastic changes to their sound or releasing any albums that are noticeably weak (not that I can say I have heard them all, but their discography does not seem to contain any infamous releases). Soundwise, I have always thought of Pretty Maids as a bit of a less-heavy version of Saxon. They have a greater melodic rock influence, with a more prominent use of keyboards, and often place more prominence on vocal melodies rather than guitar riffs. Their career seems to parallel Saxon's a little too, with success in the 1980s, followed by a bit of a commercial slump throughout the 1990s, only to see their star rise again over the past few years with interest in the band once again growing. 2010's Pandemonium was certainly a big success for the band, and Pretty Maids capitalised on this with the excellent Motherland in 2013. A compilation of new material and re-recorded songs from the band's lesser-known albums Louder Than Ever followed a year later, but the new album Kingmaker is the first true Pretty Maids studio album in three years. Kingmaker is the band's fifteenth studio album overall, and one that certainly carries on the quality established since their resurgence at the turn of the decade. Driven as always by founding members vocalist Ronnie Atkins and guitarist Ken Hammer, Kingmaker is an album that emphasises the heavier end of the band's songwriting and style. The departure of keyboardist Morten Sandager after ten years of service almost certainly contributed to this heavier feel, as Pretty Maids were effectively a four-piece when they wrote and recorded the album. Kim Olesen (Anubis Gate) recorded the album's keyboards on a session basis, but they are far less prominent giving more roof for Hammer's guitar to dominate the sound. Chris Laney (Randy Piper's Animal) has since joined the band as their new keyboardist and has been touring with the band in support of this album. As has been the case with all of their albums since at least Pandemonium onward, Jacob Hansen (Invocator; Beyond Twilight; Anubis Gate; Pyramaze) has produced Kingmaker. He is one of the most in-demand producers in melodic metal today and it is easy to see why with this album. The sound throughout is great, with the rhythm section of bassist Rene Shades and drummer Allan Tschicaja sounding strong and powerful throughout. While the melodies are often not as strong on Kingmaker as they have been on other Pretty Maids albums, the great metal energy more than makes up for this, and the result is the heaviest Pretty Maids album for a while.

Opening with some subtle Eastern melodies and a strong percussive feel, When God Took a Day Off soon becomes a heavy rocker, with a simple melodic guitar lead to act as a main riff, and sets the tone for the whole album. While much of the verses are somewhat laid back, with a chiming clean guitar melody, the rest of the song is a wash with crunching power chords and punchy drums. Atkins transitions easily between melodic singing and a more gruff delivery, something which is used to a great effect in the song's chorus with a call-and-response style used making use of both types of singing. It is a very instantly memorable chorus, with the gruff vocals acting in the same way that other bands use gang vocals to emphasise power, with strong melodies that stick in the mind with ease. The album's title track is another winner with a driving double bass rhythm from Tschicaja, who actually dominates the song with his heavy playing. His rolling drum beat that sits behind the catchy main guitar lead is great, and he adds real power to the chorus with his hard-hitting style. Keyboards come to the fore more in the chorus, which adds a subtle halo to the heaviness that is the rest of the song. Again, it is a very melodic moment, with Atkins showing why he is one of the more underrated frontmen in the genre. Those who like the more melodic rock end of their songwriting will love Face the World, which opens with a bouncy riff and this vibe continues throughout and culminates in a joyus chorus that is one of the most upbeat moments on the album. Keyboards again make their presence felt here, adding a lot to the verses while the guitars and bass are happy to chug away in the background. There is a great guitar solo here too which takes cues from many of the classic AOR guitarists with lots of slow melodic phrasing and little shredding. Opening with a murky guitar line, Humanize Me gets back to the heavier vibe of the early couple of songs. When the song really gets going, there is a great muscular riff that really drives everything and is packed with plenty of groove. As is common with Pretty Maids songs, there is another strong chorus here that makes great use of a wall of backing vocals that makes it very powerful. This is a great contrast from the sparse, murky sections that are scattered throughout the song. After four proper rock songs, Last Beauty on Earth comes along as the album's first ballad with clean guitar chords and heartfelt vocals. Pretty Maids have always been able to write convincing ballads, and I think this is partly down to Atkins' voice, as he has a gentler side that is perfect to convey the emotions needed to make ballads work. There is a great guitar solo here too, which is a little faster than you would expect for a ballad but it still works well. The key change in the final chorus is a classic 1980s-style ballad trick too, and it is used to good effect here.

After that little rest, the band get back to rock next with the crunching Bull's Eye. The fast, muted power chord rhythms manages to create plenty of energy and Atkins really stands out here with a strident vocal display. Again, there is a strong chorus here and one that is potentially the album's catchiest. The high-energy guitar pattern is a great contrast to the smoother vocals, helped up by plenty of subtle backing vocals, and this creates something which showcases all of the reasons Pretty Maids are such a great band. King of the Right Here and Now initially portrays itself as a fast song. The frantic drumming in the intro hails the arrival of what is easily the thrashiest riff on the album, but once the vocals kick in the song dials back to more of a mid-pace which allows Atkins to shine. The song mostly remains at this pace throughout, exploding into the thrashy riff every so often to give the listener a bit of a shock. The chorus, despite being slow and grinding, is still surprisingly catchy and is helped by a big keyboard arrangement. Heaven's Little Devil is a bit more laid back, with some spacey keyboard sounds and guitars that are less in your face. The verses sound like they could have been influenced by Atkins' time working with Tobias Sammet in Avantasia, as they have that slightly theatrical feel, and the chorus is actually has quite a modern feel with wordless backing vocals and big open guitar chords that are a change from the band's usual rock approach. The song works well though, and has a bit of a different vibe to everything else on the album. The more relaxed approach is really aided by the keyboards, and shows what an asset they can be to the band's sound. Civilized Monsters is another song that opens with a murky guitar line, and the intro works really well with Atkins' smoother vocals and the chiming guitar melodies. This soon changed however, as the song's main riff kicks in and a swirl of electronics join it for a heavy, claustrophobic sound. The clean melody from the beginning is often re-used however, especially in the verses, and the marriage of the two sounds works well. Some of the riffing in this song has a very modern metal feel, with lots of staccato rhythms that brings to mind the metalcore scene a little. Sickening sees the band back in more familiar territory with more crunch and melody. Most of the song is driven by very simple power chord rhythms, with Atkins' powerful vocals to really act as the focal point. His vocals take on more of an aggressive feel here, which suits the lyrical themes perfectly, and gives the song real grit. The end of the chorus almost borders on harsh vocals, and it sounds great! The album's closing number, Was That What You Wanted (Look What You've Got) opens with a flurry of synths and riff that is packed full of groove soon takes over. While not overly different to anything else found on the album, it is a high-energy song that works well as a closing number. The chorus in particular packs a punch, and ensures the album ends on a high. Overall, Kingmaker is another solid album from Pretty Maids that helps to ensure their recent resurgence will continue. This is their most 'metal' album for sometime, and is sure to be a hit among their fanbase.

The album was released on 4th November 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Kingmaker.

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