We are often the hardest on the ones we love, and make no mistake, I love me some Grand Magus. I have a long-standing appreciation for metal that’s to the point, infectious and galloping, and I’m as forgiving as a gullible mother when it comes to clichéd lyrics because of an abiding obligation to European power metal. But as much as I admit to loving the front half of Sword Songs, a point I’d like to >>emphasize<< before things turn critical, there are elements on the back half of this record that I wouldn’t mind seeing blood eagled before Auðumbla and all of creation.
If you’re at all familiar with these Swedes, you know they have a stubborn approach to their overall game plan that rivals Motörhead. Sword-swinging traditional metal for endless battles or Get the Freja Out, basically. To the more casual fan, an iron-clad dogma such as this stretched over a decade and a half with a new release every 1.5 years might equate to too much material and time spent on the back of a goddamn armored horse. That’s just fine, Grand Magus makes it very clear that they don’t care much for trends and people who refuse to set aside ample time to romance about polished swords.
For the diehards who still identify strongly with the core foundation, we’re intense enough to distinguish the subtle shifts between each Magus release. The Hunt and its harder rock emphasis, for example, or the way 2014’s Triumph and Power pushed a slightly darker, slower angle. Again, it’s faint shading to the casual ear, but the band’s records generally live and die based on the listener’s attitude toward these modest deviations. For this year’s skirmish, the priority has shifted toward an increase in heft and velocity.
MORE HEFT AND VELOCITY? That sounds sweeter than waterslides off Hringhorni’s stern!
And for the most part, it is. Sword Songs is the most aggressive record Grand Magus has released to date. Pair that with JB’s gold-plated voice and you get a leading seventeen minutes that begs to rip out of open windows harder than a bulldog begs at a butcher’s counter. “Freja’s Choice” and “Varangian” gallop from the gate with a hard-driving, triumphant fury that’s spiffed with the perfect amount of bright, melodic embroidery. “We are WARRIORS, defenders of STEEL,” even Lance with the limp over in Accounting.
“Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel” follows with an upsurge in beefiness (and Vi-corny Vikingliness, thanks to that chorus), particularly when it hits the crushing breakdown that’s fortified by a weirdly suitable train bell ride cymbal. And “Born for Battle (Black Dog of Brocéliande)” is an absolute scorcher that ranks toward the top of the list of Magus songs that appropriately galvanize armchair champions.
Unfortunately, the flight begins its initial descent with “Master of the Land,” which, other than being clearly heavy, doesn’t bring much else to the table. “Last One to Fall” graciously tromps out another infectious chorus, but the slow-down and its accompanying train-clang cymbal that literally just happened a few songs earlier doesn’t help its case very much. It’s also around this point when a realization that an over-emphasis on heft is possible, particularly with regard to the album’s production. It works for the drums (recorded in a separate studio in Gothenburg), which sound fairly in your face during initial spins, but the muddy heft attached to the bass and guitar ends up burying most of the melody that the album’s edges desperately need. Those nice bits of bright, melodic embroidery that helped carry the first two songs? Wave to those bastards in the rearview mirror. Half the leads seem like an afterthought, or have a flatness that makes them sound as if they’re being played one floor below the rest of the band. Thankfully, “Frost and Fire” throws an infectious, energetic lifeline, but even this burner could use an extra shot of greaze to stress the dirty riffing.
The album’s strangest snag, however, hits with the closing “Every Day There’s a Battle to Fight.” Finishing the most aggressive album to date with a farewell this crawling is anticlimactic enough, but tacking the lyrics “you gotta get up, be strong and fight them all” to the bridge makes it feel like the most lethargic fight song ever recorded. “Oh, we’re gonna battle, you sonsabitches, but give me a minute to brush these potato chip crumbs out of my hair.”
Ultimately, similar to each of the post Iron Will records, there will be proportionate shares of joy and bitterness hung on Sword Songs over time; there simply is no use in attempting to please everyone, particularly in a climate where so many consider themselves “experts.” I suppose what riles me the most is the fact that the record teases you with the perfect balance of heft, catchiness and melody from the gate, only to see the latter drop off a cliff after the first two songs – a new approach for this band. Perhaps that’s being overly nitpicky, but when you’re as stubborn about a straight-forward formula as Grand Magus is, it’s vital that EVERY element be given five stars worth of due diligence to avoid producing the metal equivalent of Fruit Stripe Gum. I don’t believe that’s the case with this record, but I suppose that’s something only time will tell. Until then, Sword Songs in a nutshell: heavy, catchy and worthy of fans’ attention, particularly the front half. It destroys The Hunt and Hammer of the North, but falls just short of Triumph and Power in terms of overall effectiveness.