The third time is the charm for A.C.T. — and charming is the best way to describe the Swedish progressive-pop quintet's third album, Last Epic. While the band's first two albums (Today's Report from 1999 and Imaginary Friends from 2001) were a bit too quirky, requiring several spins to fully absorb, Last Epic is immediately intriguing.
Given some of the song titles — "Mr. Landlord," "Ted's Ballad," "Wake Up," "A Loaded Situation," "The Observer," "The Cause," "The Effect" — and the "Intro" and "Outro" that bookend these 53 minutes, I think Last Epic is based on some sort of concept. Ask me what, though, and I won't be able to tell you. Ask me if I care, and I don't. Understanding the story line is not crucial to this album. What really matters is that this is smart, exquisitely crafted pop with touches of progressive rock and AOR. Singer Herman Saming's crystalline voice echoes that of many a great singer, but just try pinpointing who he sounds like. Fluid yet powerful guitars and bouncy yet majestic keyboards ensure that even when Saming isn't singing, there's plenty of fun stuff going on. There's even a string section. (For what it's worth, A.C.T. toured with Saga earlier this year — a bill that couldn't have been more appropriate.)
I wasn't a firm believer in A.C.T.'s first two albums, although I found elements of them appealing. Last Epic, which I initially (and incorrectly) thought was going to be a retro-prog kind of thing with massive tracks, takes the best of those records and combines them into a disc that's as surprising as it is engaging.