Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Album Review: Royal Hunt - XIII: Devil's Dozen

As a band like Royal Hunt continues to put out new records, it makes me wonder how veterans are able to cope with the reality of the music business. For a band that's been around as long as Royal Hunt has, and has put out a dozen albums, releasing new material is an effort in futility. The creative spark is still there, the desire to make new music and feel vital, but the reality is that there are going to be very few people interested in hearing what they have to offer. Bands that have been around so long get locked into playing the same songs they always have, and fans have no problem demanding the 'hits' year after year, tour after tour. It's enough to make you wonder why bands like this bother with the hassle.

My assumption is that they have too much pride to become touring jukeboxes, regurgitating the same flaccid songs for decades at a time. Musicians should make music, or so I would think. With album number thirteen, Royal Hunt continues playing moderately progressive melodic rock, defying both their age and the state of the world.

"So Right So Wrong" opens the album with an orchestral flourish, one that makes me do a double-take, because it sounds remarkably similar to the SportsCenter jingle. That it's the main riff of the song makes the whole thing a bit hard to listen to without thinking about my favorite mascot-related commercials. The song itself is an unusual number, with verses that are (if you pardon the absurdity of the phrase) akin to acoustic industrial music. Singer DC Cooper is the biggest draw to the current incarnation of the band, and through this first track, I can't see why. His vocals through the verses are slurred, and delivered with a garbled tone that recalls the worst of Axl Rose. He's better in the chorus, when they try to inject a big melody, but even then he lacks a personality.

"May You Never (Walk Alone)" better infuses the orchestral swells, switching into a massive-scope rocker after a soft piano opening. Here, the band finds themselves hitting their comfort zone, pumping out some purely melodic rock that doesn't try to do anything they aren't well-equipped to handle. The song might be a touch long at more than seven minutes, but it's an engaging enough listen to make up for the disappointing start to the record.

After a while, the orchestral elements begin to lose their power. The band often layers them right atop the big guitars, which is a poor use of classical instruments. Their more delicate tones necessitate a calmer environment to get the most out of them. Instead, they often feel buried a bit behind the hard rock the core of the band is playing. When there are big electric instruments pounding away, it's hard for the softer tones to cut through.

The songs are obviously trying to be big, and even bigger, but that reach is actually a deterrent. In trying to be larger than life, the choruses are definitely huge and melodic, but they come through with such bombast that they lack the subtle hooks that are most memorable. DC Cooper is singing so hard to rise over the music that his effort is almost too much.

Look, I'm not saying this record is littered with fatal flaws. The core of the songs are still well-written melodic rock, it's just that I can hear ways that the band's choices didn't work to the benefit of the music. Everything is so epic, including the running times that could have been trimmed, that it loses focus. If everything is huge, then nothing really is, because there isn't any contrast.

Consider it like having an antique clock in your house. Anyone who walks in is going to hear the ticking, and probably be driven nuts by it. But once you live with it for a while, you can tune it out and not even realize it's there. That's the problem Royal Hunt has created here. By packing every moment of the record with oversized arrangements, the big moments don't sound any more grandiose than the smaller ones. That's the reason that, even though the songs themselves deliver some really good moments (I love the hook on "Until The Day"), the album as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. More is not always more, and Royal Hunt proves that here.

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