Welcome to day nine of my ‘Album of the Year 2016’ top 30 countdown. Are you all still with me? I certainly hope so.
If you have just discovered this blog or this particular series, please feel free to check out the previous entries – my picks for 23-30 can be found via the links at the bottom of this post, along with links to the previous years as well. It should keep you busy for a few hours I should think.
So far, this year’s list has contained everything from prog metal to melodeath and from thrash metal, to avant-garde black metal. What can I say? My tastes really do encompass most styles of heavy music and that’s firmly reflected by this list. And now today, you can add ‘melodic metal’ to the list as I give you my choice at number 22…
Universal Mind Project
The Jaguar Priest
Inner Wound Recordings
“It is actually quite difficult to describe the musical output of Universal Mind Project succinctly because it features so many different elements. It is progressive, powerful, symphonic and highly melodic, almost veering into mainstream music territory on more than one occasion. There are dual male and female vocals plus a fair few extreme metal growls as well as demonstrably heavier moments that arguably belong more to the more extreme genres of metal than to anything else.
The list of guest musicians…is quite something too and includes Nils K Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Johan Reinholz (Andromeda), Mark Jansen (Epica, Mayan), Charlie Dominici (ex-Dream Theater), Emanuele Casali (DGM) and Diego Valdez (Helker).
Enhanced by a lyrical content that generally avoids genre clichés, striking cover artwork and a hugely impressive production…Universal Mind Project have delivered the full package. Remarkably consistent, hugely engaging and expertly crafted, it has come out of nowhere to blow me away.”
OK, so Universal Mind Project have not quite made it into my top 10 as I suggested it might via my review earlier in the year. At the time, I had no idea just how strong the year was to be overall. Nevertheless, it is still an impressively strong release that deserves a place in this list without a shadow of doubt. It certainly came out of nowhere to make a huge impact, even more so given that this is the debut album under the Universal Mind Project moniker.
Every song delivers something just a little bit different, be it the involvement of a guest artist or an injection of greater prog or cinematic overtones. However, what nearly every song has in common with each other is that the quality is consistently very high and there is always a catchy melody or hook somewhere to grab me and pull me under its spell. In some ways, ‘The Jaguar Priest’ could be referred to as a ‘feel good’ album, an dose of superb, grandiose, over-the-top heavy metal that does one thing: puts a huge smile on my face. Oh, ok, two things: it also makes me bang my head and sing out loud too.
Is there anything else an album like this needs to do?
In case you’ve missed any of the other posts in the 2016 series, here they are for you to explore and enjoy:
It is one thing to be impressed by an album from a band that you’re familiar with but one of the best feelings when reviewing music is being absolutely bowled over by a band that you knew nothing about prior to being invited to check out the promo. And this is exactly the feeling I have got from Universal Mind Project and their debut album, ‘The Jaguar Priest’. Mind you, given the clientele involved, I’m at a loss to understand why I hadn’t got this release firmly on my radar earlier.
Universal Mind Project was conceived by guitarist Michael Alexander and began life in 2012. Since then, Alexander has managed to pull together an impressive group of musicians which form the nucleus of Universal Mind Project and transform it from a project to a fully-fledged band. Joining Alexander are vocalists Henrik Bath (Darkwater) and Elina Laivera as well as drummer Alex Landenburg (Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody).
The list of guest musicians that join this core quartet is quite something too and includes Nils K Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Johan Reinholz (Andromeda), Mark Jansen (Epica, Mayan), Charlie Dominici (ex-Dream Theater), Emanuele Casali (DGM) and Diego Valdez (Helker). Is your mouth watering? It ought to be. But, as we all know, all the famous names in the world cannot guarantee a quality finished product if the music itself is not up to the requisite standard. In the case of Universal Mind Project however, it is clear before the opening track finishes that this will not be a problem and that this is an album to be reckoned with.
It is actually quite difficult to describe the musical output of Universal Mind Project succinctly because it features so many different elements. It is progressive, powerful, symphonic and highly melodic, almost veering into mainstream music territory on more than one occasion. There are dual male and female vocals plus a fair few extreme metal growls as well as demonstrably heavier moments that arguably belong more to the more extreme genres of metal than to anything else.
If you’re thinking that this all sound like it could result in a messy album, I agree; on paper, it shouldn’t really work. And yet it does. Moreover, it works really, really well, much to the credit of Alexander and Laivera, the primary song writers on this album.
Kicking things off is the prog-tinged power metal-meets-melodic hard rock swagger of ‘Anthem For Freedom’. It is dominated by tinkling keys and rich synths courtesy of DGM’s Casali as well as the duel vocals of Bath and Laivera who are both really suited to each other and to the surrounding composition. It’s a highly melodic affair with a really catchy chorus but it also has a heavier edge thanks to the injection of a few gruff vocals later in the piece.
‘Truth’ follows and is, if anything even better. The opening keyboard melody is brilliant, underpinned by the rumbling bass of Mike LePond but is soon replaced by a verse that features more gruff vocals and a stop-start chugging rhythm guitar riff. The chorus, almost at odds to the aggressive verse is magical, led by a return of the opening synth melody and some angelic, soaring vocals from Laivera. If you enjoy hook-laden choruses, this is like manna from heaven.
But just when you think that things can’t continue at such a high level, you’re proved wrong time and again. ‘The Bargain Of Lost Souls’ features Nils K. Rue of Pagan’s Mind on lead vocals and, as such, there are big parallels to the vocalist’s day job. Meaty chugging riffs, energetic lead duels between the keyboards and guitars, as well as another anthemic chorus dominate a track that’s darker in tone and markedly more progressive than the opening two songs.
‘Dreamstate’ on the other hand begins in commanding fashion with more heavy riffing and plenty of Mark Jansen’s growled vocals. But then, out of nowhere comes a chorus so smooth and catchy that it is almost AOR-like. It is a surprising and clever juxtaposition that gives the entire track more depth, character and drama than it would otherwise have.
I must admit that I’m unaware of Diego Valdez and his principal band Helker but he gives a great performance on ‘Awakened By The Light (Universal Mind)’, full of passion and power. It is a slightly longer track and one of the more progressive in terms of its construction and numerous different segments. Nevertheless, hooks and melodies are never far away and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it features a hugely memorable chorus of sorts that gets lodged in your head immediately.
‘A World That Burns’ is principally a piano and vocal track that is heartbreakingly beautiful. It is an elegant and sensitive composition that allows Laivera to really showcase her considerable skills. So strong is her performance and the accompanying melodies that what would normally be a skip-over track is essential and majestic.
For the sake of brevity, I will reluctantly cease my track-by-track narrative and instead just mention the title track. It is the longest composition on the record and also the most overtly progressive. It begins with a spoken word intro before encompassing just about everything that’s so great about this album into one epic track; atmosphere, clever riffs, copious keyboard and guitar leads, fantastic vocals including a guest appearance from Charlie Dominici and, dare I say it, more hook-laden and cheesy grin-inducing melodies that are addictive and lead to frequent repeated listens.
Enhanced by a lyrical content that generally avoids genre clichés, striking cover artwork and a hugely impressive production courtesy of Simone Mularoni (Vision Divine, DGM) at Domination Studios, Universal Mind Project have delivered the full package. Remarkably consistent, hugely engaging and expertly crafted, it has come out of nowhere to blow me away. As such, ‘The Jaguar Priest’ has ‘end of year top 10’ written all over it. Superb.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Welcome to day 6 of what is my most comprehensive and mammoth end of year countdown ever. 2015 has been such a ludicrously strong year that I felt I had to extend the content from 20 to 30. With two small children, Christmas around the corner and a house-move still a very vivid nightmare, some might call me crazy. Well, they’d be right as I am crazy…about this great music that artists from around the globe have created for our listening pleasure. The least I can do in return is to write a little bit about the very best albums that have been released.
If you are interested in those releases that featured between 30-26, please check out the links at the end of this post.
As always, comment, criticism and general interaction is greatly encouraged – let’s hear what you all think! But the time has now come to reveal number 25:
The Gentle Storm
Inside Out Records
There are two primary reasons why this release features in my Top 30 list this year. Firstly, the compositional and song writing brilliance of Mr Arjen Lucassen. The second is the vocals of ex-The Gathering’s Anneke van Giersbergen. Put these two together and it is a recipe destined for magical things. And, as appetising at it sounded on paper ahead of the release, the result is wonderful, the musical equivalent of a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant if you’ll forgive the continuation of my food-based theme.
Arjen Lucassen is the reclusive workaholic genius behind the Ayreon, Star One and Guilt Machine monikers and so this album should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys any of the aforementioned projects. From a musical perspective, there are many familiar ingredients that instantly marks it out as a Lucassen effort; the song structures, the melodies, the instrumental tones, a whole range of different things.
And yet, The Gentle Storm, being a collaborative affair with Anneke van Giersbergen, is quite a different venture indeed. My full review can be read here, but to quote a small passage:
‘The Gentle Storm is, to put it mildly, an intelligent and multi-faceted beast. It’s a double album that features eleven tracks recorded twice in two different guises. Disc one features ‘calm’ versions of the eleven compositions whilst disc two revisits the songs and in the process dials up the metal. No suprise then that disc two is referred to as the ‘storm’ disc. I find the whole idea thoroughly fascinating.’
Folk-inspired melodies, Middle-Eastern influences and authentic instrumentation, coupled with the inclusion of a number of guest musicians throughout make this lyrical and musical concept album a really fresh and invigorating listen. The ‘gentle’ disc is subtle and beautiful throughout, enhanced by the truly angelic vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen, a singer that I could listen to all day; this is most definitely one of her very best performances committed to disc, I am convinced of this.
However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that the ‘storm’ disc is my personal favourite. We’re not dealing with anything approaching extreme metal and indeed, much of the heavier material remains subtle enough to let the heart of the compositions shine. However, I do enjoy the beefier guitar tones and the added sense of drama that the ‘storm’ versions create.
I loved this album upon its release earlier in the year and now at year’s end, I can say that my love has not waned. I frequently dip in and out of the release and every single time, I find something new to like or I change my mind about which is my favourite track. Importantly therefore, I’m still engaged with it and in truth, I suspect I will be for the foreseeable future.
To conclude, as I stated in my full review, ‘one day, Arjen Lucassen will be involved with a less-than-stellar album, but it isn’t now. The partnership between Arjen and his leading lady, Anneke van Giersbergen has proved to be an inspiring one, one that has delivered a double album which is epic and ambitious but ultimately a magnificent triumph. It might not all be to everyone’s taste, but I love it. Absolutely superb.’
‘The Gentle Storm’…if you stop and think about it and let the words mull over in your mind for a time, it suddenly hits you what a really nice, clever and simple name it is. A contradiction in terms it may be but it’s one that beautifully sums up what this album is all about. But more about that in a moment; first, some context.
The Gentle Storm is the latest release from the intense workaholic that’s Arjen Lucassen, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist that is occasionally – and rightfully in my opinion – referred to as a musical genius. Arjen has been a part of the rock/metal music scene for over 30 years and in that time, has recorded some of the most highly regarded music within the progressive genre. With The Gentle Storm, normal service has been resumed and this project stands shoulder to shoulder with Lucassen’s previous work under his several various guises, be it Ayreon, Guilt Machine or Star One to name a few.
To be entirely accurate though, The Perfect Storm is more of a joint collaboration between Arjen and his compatriot, Anneke van Giersbergen, better known for supplying her angelic vocals to The Gathering and more latterly, in collaboration with Devin Townsend but also as a revered solo artist in her own right.
The fiendishly talented Lucassen handles the majority of the standard instruments on the album. However, a plethora of guests join him and Anneke on the record including a choir and over 40 authentic, exotic instruments making it an ambitious project to say the least. But Arjen is no stranger to handling such huge logistical efforts as he proves once again.
There’s even a live band for when The Gentle Storm goes onto the stage. Yes, you heard that right, the reclusive Arjen is going to perform live. For this momentous occasion, Anneke and Arjen are to be joined by an all-Dutch crew comprised of guitarists Merel Bechtold (Purest of Pain, MaYaN) and Ferry Duijsens (Anneke van Giersbergen, ex-Dreadlock Pussy), drummer Ed Warby (Hail Of Bullets, Ayreon, ex-Gorefest), bassist Johan van Stratum (Stream of Passion) and keyboardist Joost van den Broek (ex-After Forever).
But what’s the music like that fans will be treated to?
The Gentle Storm is, to put it mildly, an intelligent and multi-faceted beast. It’s a double album that features eleven tracks recorded twice in two different guises. Disc one features ‘calm’ versions of the eleven compositions whilst disc two revisits the songs and in the process dials up the metal. No suprise then that disc two is referred to as the ‘storm’ disc. I find the whole idea thoroughly fascinating.
But that’s not all. ‘The Diary’ is a concept album lyrically as well. In celebration of their Dutch heritage, the concept centres around the Dutch Golden Age from the 17th Century, a time that encompasses the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer for example as well as new discoveries and advancements in many of the important areas we now take for granted. The story is then brought to life and given a real human element via the creation of two central characters. A sailor and his wife are kept apart for two years and their only means of communication is via letters, the content of which are explored throughout the album. It’s both am enlightening and touching story that only serves to add to the drama and richness of the album.
Disc one, the ‘gentle’ disc is stunning in its beauty. To say it is simple would be grossly unfair but so expertly crafted is it that the music gives off the illusion of simplicity; the melodies are hook-laden and breezy, the compositions feel light and airy and the almost ethereal vocals of Anneke sound effortless. The entire disc has a demonstrable folk feel to it; acoustic guitars, woodwind, strings, French horn, pianos and the myriad of aforementioned authentic instruments all play a part in creating an end product which is really rather special. Lucassen’s compositional skills are well-known and widely lauded but here, he has pulled out all the stops. In interviews, he readily admits that he wrote the music to allow Anneke’s voice to shine and he has achieved his aim with aplomb. The music is instantly recognisable as Arjen’s work but he has allowed his melodic sensibilities to come to the fore and has created some of his strongest material to date, allowing Anneke to shine like a diamond throughout. Frankly, so beautiful is Anneke’s voice that I could genuinely listen to her singing the contents of a tax return all day long.
I must admit that I wasn’t immediately put under a spell by the ‘gentle’ disc but I cannot deny that the more I listen, the more I want to return for more. The chorus within ‘New Horizons’ for example is gorgeous and captivating, the subtleties within ‘Endless Sea’ or ‘Heart of Amsterdam’ are remarkable and the almost cheeky instrumental interplay within tracks like ‘Eyes of Michiel’ is a real joy to behold.
However, I am the Man of Much Metal and for all the copious strengths of the ‘gentle’ disc, it is on the ‘storm’ disc where I unsurprisingly derive the most enjoyment. Others will no doubt disagree, but to my mind, the whole thing comes fully alive on the second disc.
We’re not talking extreme metal here and, in all honesty, the metal excesses and fripperies could have been further embellished had the mood taken the duo. However, in spite of this laudable restraint, the ante is nevertheless upped significantly. On opener ‘Endless Sea’, the guitars and dramatic symphonics are brought more to the fore to wonderful effect. The choir sounds magnificent and Anneke’s vocal delivery is captivating, reminding me more of her output on The Gathering’s seminal release ‘Mandylion’ than anything else she has put her name and considerable talents to since.
‘Heart of Amsterdam’ benefits second time around from a surprisingly chunky and heavy guitar tone that I adore and the whole thing has a grandiose majesty and beauty that cannot be ignored.
One of many highlights however must be the delightful ‘Shores of India’ with its Middle Eastern melodies and tangible exotic flavour. Coupled with a really superb rhythm guitar tone, big choir-led crescendo and another brilliant vocal delivery from Anneke, it’s a real head-turner and one of the strongest compositions on this record.
One day, Arjen Lucassen will be involved with a less-than-stellar album, but it isn’t now. The partnership between Arjen and his leading lady, Anneke van Giersbergen has proved to be an inspiring one, one that has delivered a double album which is epic and ambitious but ultimately a magnificent triumph. It might not all be to everyone’s taste, but I love it. Absolutely superb.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here: