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Royal Hunt: Fear

On paper, singer John West's recent leap from Artension to Royal Hunt appears to be a decent career move. But ultimately, West's performance replacing D.C. Cooper as Royal Hunt's legendary lungs will be judged on disc and onstage. If the band's first post-Cooper effort is any indication, Denmark's Royal Hunt has taken a huge step in an epic direction with its fifth studio release. Fear weighs in with only seven tracks, all of them breaking the five-minute mark and one cracking nine minutes. They feature dense instrumentation and vocals, pretentious yet tasteful keyboards and a newfound dark side. Meanwhile, Artension's latest album (and most likely its last with West at the helm) was released a few months after Fear and represents a major maturation, too. Machine boasts more intricate piano melodies mingling with heavy power chords and greater musical variety than the band dished up on its three previous efforts.

Both discs count as worthy acquisitions not only because of the contrasting crossroads they represent for each band, but also because they mark the finest releases by either group. West's voice, while not as shrill and charismatic as Cooper's, is allowed more room to move and soar in Royal Hunt than it ever received in Artension. In fact, West's lack of emotion and autopilot delivery marred much of that group's work. On Machine, at least, he sounds livelier perhaps the result of better material with which to work. But West (who also sang with the '80s hard-rock band Badlands) is just one cog in this Machine, just as he's only one element of Fear. Listened to individually, each album is a full-group effort, highlighted by dominant keyboards.

That's no surprise, considering that the chief composers in both bands are the keyboardists. Andre Andersen, who has written and produced virtually every Royal Hunt track since its 1993 debut album, Land of Broken Hearts, opts to sacrifice a bit of his solo fluidity to better blend in with the band's harder, darker sound while retaining all of its neoclassicism and the strategy works. The title track kicks things off with an extended spoken-word intro creeping over some spooky keyboards and sound effects. Then West's voice, slightly distorted, enters for the first time. After singing four lines in a somber, evil tone, West stays silent for the better part of three minutes while Jacob Kjaer proceeds to play perhaps the best series of power chords the band has ever laid down. The rest of "Fear," surprisingly, comes off as one of the softer songs on the disc, with gentle almost sympathetic background vocals. Keyboards remain a crucial element of the song (and Andersen's solo is pure Royal Hunt) but they leave breathing room for the other instruments, a courtesy Andersen extends to his bandmates on other tracks, as well. "Faces of War" begins with the undulating rhythm section of bassist Steen Mogensen and drummer Allan Sorensen in a distinctively anti-Royal Hunt intro, and "Lies" sounds like it could have been yanked from some hair-metal band's archives.

"Gold City Lights" and the grandiose ballad "Follow Me" are all Andersen, though, despite some more intricate instrumental work from the rest of the band. "Voices" and disc-closer "Sea of Time" retain all of the pomposity of earlier Royal Hunt efforts, particularly those on Moving Target and Paradox. Lyrically, the album's title hits the mark. West sings about such dark topics as war ("Innocent kid covered in blood/Shredded to pieces and left in the mud," from "Faces of War"), addiction ("It seems to me I'm falling down to the same old ground again," from "Gold City Lights") and loneliness ("Voices are calling/Calling to you from the stories which never've been told" from "Voices").

Meanwhile, Artension's keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij sounds as if he's learned to share with the boys, too, giving West more leeway as a singer and allowing guitarist Roger Staffelbach, bassist John Onder and drummer Shane Gaalaas more playing time on Machine. Still a more over-the-top player than Andersen (if that's even possible), chief songwriter and co-producer Kuprij adds more piano and background vocals than usual to the mix. The result is Artension's most diverse disc. A ferocious piano replaces the overworked synthesizer on "Madness Calling," creating a sound not often heard in modern progressive-metal beyond a ballad. But "Madness Calling," a rousing first-person journal of someone going crazy and one of Machine's standout tracks, is far from ballad material. Piano dominates "Mother Earth," as well, which also spotlights West's memorable voice as he caresses listeners on the verses and carries them to new heights on the soaring chorus. Likewise, "The Way" features an a cappella opening that will induce goosebumps on the skin of even the most casual listeners.

Despite Artension's assortment of approaches on Machine, songs like "Wings of War," "Evolution in Reverse" and even the title track still follow the "been there, done that" formula which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially given the caliber of Artension's players. But it does give some indication of why West might have jumped bands. Royal Hunt also offers him a chance to tour more than Artension, which has been held back by Shrapnel's budget constraints.

With the acquisition of West, Royal Hunt appears to be headed toward a new phase of its career, while the future of Artension unless the band finds an even better singer to replace West remains in doubt. At least, that's how the situation looks on paper. But anything can happen, as both Fear and Machine forcefully attest.

Added: January 1st 2004
Reviewer: SoT Archives
Related Link: The Band's Website
Hits: 4394
Language: english

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