Album Review: Universal Mind Project – ‘The Jaguar Priest’

You know, normally, when I sit down to write a review, an interesting/funny discussion point related to the band and/or the genre of it springs to mind very quickly and I use that to build up to the rest of the review to ensure that everyone is on the same page as me. This time, though, I spent ages trying to think of something to lead off this review with and the only thing I could think of was “Why would you want to refer to a band as a project?”, which I answered very quickly when I tried to follow that line of logic.

So screw it, let’s be boring and just jump into the important stuff that everyone needs to know.

Universal Mind Project (which sounds like a strange plan from a sci-fi work involving brain uploading to me…) are a progressive/power metal band that formed in 2012 by guitarist, growler and composer Michael Alexander (who I can find absolutely nothing on beyond this band, so apologies about the lack of information). The rest of the band that joined Alexander are vocalist Elina Laivera (who I also can find nothing on), who also helped to compose the album, vocalist Henrik Bath (who might be familiar to some people for being part of Darkwater and Waken Eyes) and drummer Alex Landenburg (who is also part of Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody). There’s no mention of a bassist anywhere on the press sheet (beyond a guest appearance, but I’ll come to that later), so I’m going to assume Alexander provided the bass on most of the album. This album, the band’s debut, has apparently been in development on a recording level since 2014, from what I’ve seen, and it includes some surprisingly impressive guest appearances from musicians like Nils K Rue (Pagan’s Mind’s vocalist), Mark Jansen (best known as the rhythm guitarist and harsh vocalist for Epica), Charlie Dominici (ex-Dream Theater vocalist) and Mike LePond (Symphony X’s bassist).

All of which sounds pretty promising on paper…and, honestly, it is! Don’t get me wrong, The Jaguar Priest is not a perfect record and there are certainly things which I feel could have been improved about it, but there’s a lot about the record which is done well.

Let’s start with the band’s sound. Now, it’s here that the band really loses a few points from me, because they don’t really bring anything to the table that is exactly unique: the band basically plays progressive power metal (although the progressive aspect is generally more restrained than might be expected, with a strong focus on songwriting rather than technicality) and has a dual (occasionally more thanks to guests) vocalist setup that would be highly unique had most symphonic metal bands not already beaten them to it (heck, even the idea of having three full time vocalists in a band together has already been showcased well by Amaranthe). To be fair, though, I would say that Universal Mind Project manage to avoid coming across as lacking in creativity, so one could make the case that the point of the project isn’t to be original so much as it is to produce excellent music in the progressive power metal genre.

If such is their aim, then Universal Mind Project certainly don’t disappoint on that front. While I won’t say every song is flawless, I will say that I didn’t actively dislike any tracks on here, even at the album’s worst, and the best songs on here are truly excellent songs. While I’m a bit on the fence with regards to ‘The Bargain of Lost Souls’ (something about the chorus just bugs me for some reason), ‘Truth’, ‘Anthem for Freedom’ and ‘Dreamstate’ more than make up for it and, while I think some of the longer songs are a bit on the longer side of what I’d like to hear, none of them feel badly done at all (and Diego Valdez’s guest appearance on ‘Awakened by the Light’ is a very nice addition to the track). There’s also a beautiful ballad in the form of ‘A World That Burns’ that might well be one of the best metal ballads I’ve heard all year. Seriously, being completely honest, the whole record is well written overall and more than makes up for the originality factor.

On the instrumental front…well, it’s progressive power metal, so there’s very strong performances by typical metal standards on here. I think Alexander proves himself a more-than-capable guitarist on this record, to say the least, as he does a huge amount on here and his lead guitar work is a genuine joy to listen to. The bass isn’t too impressive, but I can’t say it does anything bad, just that it mostly supports what the rest of the record is doing, which feels a bit underwhelming to me, if I’m honest. The drums (which are also played by Alessandro Bissa of Vision Divine on about half of the record) are very solid, but they don’t really do anything that you’ve not heard before in the power metal scene.

The vocals are pretty much what you’d expect to hear from the guest performers, so I’ll not discuss them, but I honestly am quite surprised at the main vocalists on the record. Laivera’s voice, at first, seemed a bit too soft for what the band were going for (and I still think she is a bit lacking in power to her voice), but, when I thought about it (and trust me, I thought hard!), I couldn’t picture another female vocalist doing the material justice, as she is able to sing in a beautiful soft voice without coming across as poppy and demonstrates a decent range across the record. People expecting a more traditional female power metal vocal performance might not be immediately impressed with Laivera’s voice, but I think her vocal performance really fits the band. Bath’s vocals also took some growing on me, as I thought his voice wasn’t quite reaching some of the notes he was called upon to hit at first, but, once I stopped letting that bug me, I came to realise that his voice is actually pretty good. Not top of the genre level, admittedly, as his voice’s tone might grate on people, but he has a good range and he does do the material he is required to sing very well. I unfortunately don’t recall harsh vocals on any song which didn’t already have Mark Jansen credited on them beyond some brief ones on ‘Seven’, so I can’t say whether Alexander does a great job on the harsh vocals or not, but, if he was the source of the ones on ‘Seven’, then this is probably a good thing, as the harsh vocals on that song weren’t all that great. Not awful, but they definitely needed work.

The production on this record is honestly pretty good, although I do have to bring up my usual complaints: the bass feels a bit like it needed more of a presence in the mix to be heard properly and the mastering is probably a bit louder than it really needed to be (although it does also succeed in giving the material a decent kick, so this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering the production isn’t to any really bad extremes). Beyond that, though, the instruments sound great in the mix and they feel like they mostly occupy the right spaces in it (bass complaint notwithstanding). Simone Mularoni did the mixing and mastering for this record, so I’m going to say that the guy deserves a lot of praise for his work. Seriously, credit to the guy for his excellent work, because he deserves it!

Ultimately, The Jaguar Priest’s only real flaw is the lack of bringing anything especially new to the table, which I feel it overcomes very well through incredibly good songwriting, strong performances and a great production job. Is it going to set the world on fire? No, probably not. But, considering it is a debut album by songwriters who had no previous bands of note, it is a surprisingly strong record that does everything that I would demand from a good progressive power metal. It’s probably not an album that is going to win over people who aren’t at least faintly interested in metal music already, but, for fans of progressive and power metal, this is a very easy record to recommend.

The Jaguar Priest will be released on the 29th of April by Inner Wound Recordings. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.