Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Album Review: Universal Mind Project - The Jaguar Priest
It feels like every month we get a power or progressive metal album that features an all-star cast. I'm not exactly complaining, but I do wonder why so many of these projects pop up, when the core members could be building their own bands instead. It's a trend that started with Avantasia, but that was a side project that eventually grew into something far bigger. These smaller projects that are done on the side of bands that aren't that big to begin with, they confuse me. If the takeaway is that the songwriters need the names of established acts to get any attention, I'm not sure that's much of a selling point. Still, there have been many of these get-togethers that have been very good, so I try to give as many of them as possible a chance.
The core of Universal Mind Project's sound lies in the dueling male and female vocals, which is actually something that isn't done on an album length scale very often. And when "Anthem For Freedom" opens the record with a big, sugary hook sung by both singers, it's apparent that the approach works. The song has a big, cheezy synth line that could have come from an 80s pop song, which gets balanced out by a few growled vocals. You get the standard progressive guitar and keyboard solos, and it all gets wrapped up into an appealing package.
Likewise, "The Bargain Of Lost Souls" is a beautifully dramatic song, lush with string embellishments, and sung by Nils K. Rue of Pagan's Mind. He puts in a great performance, and the song is exactly what good progressive power metal should be; heavy, hooky, and interesting. But like a lot of these sort of projects, the songwriting isn't as consistent as I would like to hear. While the tracks I mentioned are fantastic, they're alternated with tracks like "Truth", which has a bland melody, and "Awakened By The Light", which embraces the prog side too much, and doesn't settle on a single idea long enough to develop it.
The simpler songs, like the piano ballad "A World That Burns" work better, because they're more focused. It's easy for anything that touches in prog to get so engrossed in the playing that the songs suffer, and that happens on this album when the songs try to stretch out a bit. Even those numbers aren't without charm, but they don't pack the same punch. Neither does the appearance by prog trivia answer Charlie Dominici, whose vocals get so buried under layers of echo that he might as well have phoned in his performance. The last time he released a record, he could still sing, so I don't understand making him sound like the mic was malfunctioning while he recorded his parts.
And really, I don't see the necessity of the roster assembled for the album. While it's interesting to hear a couple of these people, by and large I think the album would have been more effective had they limited the vocalists to the two actual project members, so they could develop chemistry together, and give the project a more unified sound. If you ask me what Universal Mind Project sounds like, it's a hard question to answer, because of that fact.
But let's not be too hard on this. While I would have made different choices, this is still a good record. There are a couple of fantastic tracks, and several more good ones here. I would like for it to lean more in the power and less in the prog direction, for the sake of the songwriting, but "The Jaguar Priest" remains a well-executed example of what they're going for. There is certainly plenty of potential for the next outing to improve on the shortcomings on display here, but this is a solid debut. No, it's not Avantasia, but it's better than Timo Tolkki's awful attempts to recreate it. Better by far.