Live Album Review: Royal Hunt – ‘Cargo’

Wow, Royal Hunt don’t mess around, do they? The band put out their thirteenth studio album just over half a year ago and now they put out a live album performing their 1997 album Paradox in full, alongside four other songs from the band’s discography (one from Devil’s Dozen, one from 2013’s A Life to Die For, one from 2011’s Show Me How to Live and one from 2001’s The Mission). I almost feel like I’m playing catch up with this band by this point, because, when this hit my inbox, I hadn’t got around to listening to a single Royal Hunt album beyond Devil’s Dozen (I know, I’m bad at keeping my promises…). Luckily, this proved to be a good incentive to change that, so I downloaded A Life to Die For, Show Me How to Live and 1999’s Fear (and placed an order for Paradox and The Mission) and gave them all a good shot while re-familiarising myself with Devil’s Dozen in prep for covering Cargo. Speaking frankly, this was probably the best decision I’ve made all year, as it not only proved my suspicion right that I would really enjoy digging into Royal Hunt’s discography when I got around to it, but it also made me grow to love what the band were doing on Devil’s Dozen more than I originally did. While I can’t say that I went into Cargo as a fan of the band (I’ve only heard six albums out of a total thirteen albums), I definitely went in with some idea of what to expect and a hope that it would live up expectations.

For those of you reading this who aren’t familiar with Royal Hunt, the short version of their history is that they’re a progressive power metal band from Denmark who formed in 1989 and have released thirteen studio albums to date. The band are probably best known and loved for their two releases in the 90s with American vocalist D.C. Cooper, who was one of the candidates for replacing Rob Halford in Judas Priest (and ultimately losing to Tim Owens). but the band have been releasing albums since 1992’s Land of Broken Hearts and have had some fairly impressive names tied to the band, with ex-vocalist Mark Boals probably being familiar to some people due to having a stint in Yngwie Malmsteen’s solo band (who, in a somewhat amusing twist of fate, ended up having Owens on lead vocals as well). While Cooper is probably the name most people who aren’t fans of the band will be familiar with, the key member of Royal Hunt has always been keyboardist (although the guy is also able to play guitar and bass) Andre Andersen, who is the only founding member of the band still remaining and is in charge of most of the songwriting for the band.

So, what we have on Cargo is an album that is over 18 years old being performed live (and following the album’s tracklist as well!), with two newer songs to lead into it and two newer songs after the live performance of the album. Is it good? Well, let’s put it this way: after this record, I am in no doubt that Royal Hunt are THE most underrated progressive power metal band I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to, because they can not only deliver excellent quality studio albums at an impressive rate, but they are more than capable of delivering said material in a live environment brilliantly.

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Let me start with the negatives, because there are a few. The first is that the band’s setlist seems like it could have been even better, as I still feel that the band had two potentially great opportunities which they missed, as they could have done a complete DC Cooper-era of the band celebration by swapping out ‘The Mission’ for something from Moving Target or they could have dropped ‘Half Past Loneliness’ and ‘A Life to Die For’ and swapped them out for some cuts from their non-DC Cooper fronted records as a tribute to the band’s material with their other three vocalists. I also personally would have preferred ‘A Tear in the Rain’ over ‘May You Never (Walk Alone)’ if I’d have been the one picking the setlist and was asked to pick something from the new record to include in it. Still, being honest, none of these are really big issues (more “this could have been done to offer something a bit different” than “this is a problem”) and there’s always going to be complaints over which songs should be on a band’s live setlist from fans, so the fact that the band managed to pull together a setlist which I will freely admit is still very good overall relegates this complain down to merely nitpicking.

Another negative is DC Cooper’s voice. I really hate to sound like I’m ragging on the guy, because he does do a solid job on a good amount of this album, but, when the band do the material from Paradox, it’s very easy to tell that his voice is not as capable of doing what it used to be able to do, as he doesn’t go for a lot of the higher notes that he did on the album (although he IS almost two decades older than he was when the album was recorded, in fairness) and he also audibly struggles with the final song of the show, ‘A Life to Die For’. I wouldn’t say he does a bad job on the record, because he genuinely doesn’t, but it probably wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that his voice hasn’t handled the years as well as they could have done.

I also don’t especially like that the record is taken from three recordings rather than just the one. Again, this is more a nitpick than anything else, but I just feel that it’s more honest to have a live record be taken all from the same show rather than picking the best performances from a whole tour, since you get a much better vibe of what the band sounds like live that way. I can’t complain too much about this, I’ll admit, but it’s still something that I feel I should point out in the interest of fairness to readers.

Lastly (and, again, more of a nitpick than a serious flaw), there’s very little interaction with the audience in between songs. Cooper does interact with the audience between the non-Paradox tracks, but it’s mostly the typical “hope you’re liking the show” kind of thing and an arguably unnecessary introduction of the members of the band between ‘May You Never (Walk Alone)’ and closer ‘A Life to Die For’ (although I was personally surprised when I realised that I’d missed that the band had gotten a new drummer since XIII – The Devil’s Dozen!). This isn’t a big problem, but, as someone who likes folk music live environments due to most artists’ willingness to talk about their songs, tell humorous stories and generally be friendly, approachable and relatable to their audience, I can’t help personally finding the less personal style which musicians in rock genres in general tend to fall back on a bit disappointing. That said, it’s not a bad style in its own right, it’s just not what I would personally regard as the best way of doing things.

Still, those are my only real issues with the record, because, on the performance front, everyone (aside from Cooper, as I mentioned earlier) does pretty much flawlessly! While a few minor mistakes can be heard on the performance front, there’s nothing that’s going to stick out as a major mistake unless you literally know the material back to front and demand absolute perfection. Nothing really deviates from what is on the record beyond a stronger presence of backing vocals from the rest of the band than on the studio albums (which is arguably due to Cooper’s voice not being on the level it used to be), so there’s nothing really to comment on the performance front beyond “it’s almost note perfect”.

The sound on this record is flawless. I don’t normally make grand statement like that, but there is literally nothing I can say that I’d have wanted the band to improve about the sound of the record: the mixing is perfect, the sound is crystal clear and the mastering is great. Huge props to everyone involved in the sound aspect of this album, because you did brilliantly!

So, overall, Cargo is a record which doesn’t really have any major flaws to it beyond Cooper’s vocals not being the best they could have been, and he still does a respectable enough job for me to feel that it’s hard to complain too much there. I can’t say a live record is a good opportunity to dive in with an unfamiliar band, but, if you are a Royal Hunt fan in the slightest, then there’s pretty much no reason not to pick it up, because it does everything you could reasonably expect from it and it does it very well. If you’re not a Royal Hunt fan…this might actually be worth picking up if you can’t find a copy of Paradox for a decent price and you are OK with Cooper’s voice today, so I’d check out the album versions of the post-reunion songs with Cooper and, if you like them, pick this up, because I am confident that you won’t be disappointed if that’s the case! If you’re really not a fan of progressive power metal, though, then this is unlikely to make you change your mind!

Cargo will be released on the 18th of March by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.