In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have never actually listened to Pretty Maids (which is Ronnie Atkins’ main band), Eclipse (which is Erik Martensson’s main band) or W.E.T. (which is another project Martensson is involved with). I have heard Ronnie Atkins sing with Avantasia (where I felt he did a great job on ‘Invoke the Machine’, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was written for a voice more like Jorn Lande’s than his), but that was it.
Needless to say, I went into Nordic Union blind as to what to expect, beyond the promo mentioning the band was a collaboration between them (well, more accurately, Martensson did the songwriting and Atkins did the vocals). The short version? I like it and find it to be a very well written record, but I don’t think that it does enough to avoid hitting the cliches associated with melodic hard rock and is going to be a hard sell to people who want something different as a result.
For those who want the details, though, then here you go!
The first thing to comment upon is Ronnie Atkins’ voice. Now, I’ll admit, one of the things that I remember Atkins’ voice for in ‘Invoke the Machine’ is his semi-harsh style which he occasionally added to the song, so I was disappointed to not hear that on this album (with the only exception being ’21 Guns’, which is also the only song where he sounds like himself), with him instead focusing on a more melodic style which I felt made him sound a bit too much like a typical melodic hard rock singer. I can’t really be too harsh on this one, as the style of music isn’t one which would suit that style, but it did leave me feeling like he wasn’t showing off a good trick which he had available to him and which, with its absence, resulted in him feeling like he wasn’t giving his all. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t, though: his voice is still excellent on the album and enough of Atkins’ rougher tone gets through to still be recognisably him. I’d say the best way to view it is that, if you’re familiar with Atkins’ previous performances, you’ll know he’s capable of more, but it’s not a bad performance on its own merits and it does fit the music.
The next big thing is to comment on the style of music. Melodic hard rock, to a lot of people, causes the word “glam” to spring to mind. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Nordic Union as a glam record by any measure (“melodic” and “poppy” are not the same thing: “melodic” means that it has a strong focus on melody, which is an aspect of stuff which is pop influenced, but not the sole dividing line between something being pop influenced or not, otherwise you’d have to claim that bands like Amon Amarth, Wintersun and Dimmu Borgir are a pop band, which is a pretty ridiculous claim when you compare them to actual pop artists), there are certainly aspects of their sound which overlap with glam metal and some songs lean a bit closer to glam metal than some people may like. Probably the big examples are ‘Hypocrisy’ and ‘Falling’, which sound like they could have come right out of a glam record. I honestly really don’t mind this, but some people might have a problem with this, so I’d say that you’re going to want to have at least a mild tolerance for glam to enjoy this record to the full extent. This might sound like a backhanded insult, but I mean this as a sincere comment: if you’re not a fan of glam, then this record does have some moments which avoid straying too closely to the glam sound (and the lyrics don’t point too hard towards it), but there’s enough which leans towards it that you’re not going to like which makes giving it a solid recommendation to you a very poor decision. If you do like glam, though, then you’re going to be right at home here!
The songwriting is pretty great across the record, although I do have to admit that I think the record has a few songs which didn’t particularly grab me, and the big ones are the ballads. While I can appreciate what the band were trying to do with ‘Every Heartbeat’, I don’t think it works very well, as it just doesn’t have a strong enough build up to the chorus to hold my interest, and the other ballad on the record, ‘True Love Awaits You’, is also a bit underwhelming. I don’t think either of them are bad per se, but they’re not ballads that I would particularly want to listen to if I had the choice. However, the rest of the record, while hardly offering anything that I’d say is mindblowing and being very firmly located in the conventions of the band’s genre of music, is still fairly enjoyable. ‘21 Guns’ (not to be confused for a Green Day song) is a fairly fun listen that has a great chorus, opener ‘The War Has Begun’ is pretty well done as an opener and I have to give credit to ‘Hypocrisy’ and ‘Falling’ for having very fun choruses which I really enjoyed. ‘Go’ is also fairly good, although I would say that it sounds a bit too much like it’s in the same vein as ‘Hypocrisy’ and ‘Falling’ to make it a particularly essential listen.
The performances on the record of the musicians…well, it’s fair to say that they’re not the technically skilled performances out there, but, in fairness, they weren’t trying to be. The guitars (aside from a few guitar solos), bass and keyboards (along with some of the backing vocals: the rest are handled by Ronnie Atkins) are all played by Erik Martensson, who does a decent enough job at all of them, although hardly to virtuoso level, and the drums are pretty solid as well. They play to suit the music and they do it well, so there’s not a lot more to really say.
The production is also handled by Martensson and I have to say that, beyond my usual nitpicks (barely audible bass, which admittedly isn’t doing much of any real interest, and mastering which I think is a bit more than acceptable, but not to the extent that it warrants a rant over), he does a solid job. The guitars might suffer a bit from the modern production trend of being a bit too clean, but it’s not a huge problem for melodic hard rock (we’re hardly talking about something like thrash metal here, where a gritty production actually helps to enhance the aggression of the music!) and they do still have some crunch to them which keeps it firmly in the hard rock spectrum of music, so there’s not a huge amount to comment on here. Maybe the drums could have done with a more live sound, I guess, but it’s not a major issue for me and, frankly, I’d prefer a studio sound over…whatever it was that St. Anger tried to do and screwed up with royally.
Ultimately, the biggest flaws with the record are that it feels like Ronnie Atkins could have done more with his voice on the record and that the record lacks some originality, which could be problems for Pretty Maids fans and those wanting something new respectively. If, however, you just want strong songwriting and aren’t too fussed about a record sounding original or a potentially underwhelming performance on Atkins’ front (not, I should stress, a bad one), then you could do far worse than this record. I doubt it’ll be anyone’s album of the year, but it’s got enough good points to make it worth a look into and the flaws aren’t deal breakers by any measure, so fans of melodic hard rock and glam music should find this a fun listen. Just don’t expect it to be the record that defines 2016 for you.
Nordic Union will be released on the 29th of January by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.