I’m going to start this review off by getting the obvious jokey comment out of the way now: thank God Dolph Lundgren wasn’t on the album cover, I think that would have just sunk this album faster!
Now we’ve got the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe reference out of the way, let’s continue with the regularly scheduled review.
Sweden and melodic hard rock are hardly a combination that leaves any real surprises to me by this point. It just feels like an unwritten rule that a Swedish melodic hard rock album will, at absolute worst, be serviceable, contain all of the cliches one would expect of melodic hard rock and run on just being pure fun for those who embrace the scene. Nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course, but it’s fair to say that I didn’t exactly go into Palace’s record with any big expectations as a result. Combine this with the last debut album I covered being Cruzh’s debut about a fortnight ago (which didn’t exactly leave me impressed, but fit the unwritten rule I mentioned earlier) and you could probably be forgiven for thinking that I was expecting something like that to come out of my speakers and had written them off as a result (I hadn’t, for the record).
Still, I can’t say that Palace’s debut album is coming from unskilled hands, as lead vocalist and guitarist Michael Palace has been contributing songwriting to albums released by Frontier Records for a good while, putting him in the same position as James and Tom Martin from VEGA. Considering VEGA’s most recent album Who We Are got a fairly good reception from me, part of me was curious to see if Palace could pull off a success on the level of VEGA.
Short answer? Master of the Universe is an enjoyable record if you’re a melodic rock fan, but I think some things let the record down a bit and it becomes hard to recommend to those not interested in melodic hard rock as a result.
Long answer? Grab a cuppa and sit yourself down, this might take a while…
One of the things that stands out to you from the start of the record is that it definitely SOUNDS like a record with the 80s in its veins. Keyboards which add a slightly cheesy edge to everything, but enhance the poppy nature of the music, vocals which sound a bit like Olli Herman from Reckless Love (although, oddly enough, not quite as high pitched as that might sound on paper), an obligatory ballad on a record mostly comprising rockers and performances which serve more to enhance the music rather than impress on a technical front…yep, that definitely fits what you’d expect from a melodic rock record! Naturally, this means that, if you’re not on board with melodic hard rock to start with, this isn’t going to offer anything which will change your opinion on that front, but it also means that people who do like it will also find nothing that should put them off the record on paper. Of course, if you’re growing tired of the same old, same old, then maybe that will be a drawback as well…basically, nothing new here on a sound level, so keep that in mind and judge as appropriate.
The songwriting itself is actually reasonably solid, though, again, not really offering anything you haven’t heard before on a melodic hard rock record. All of the songs have pretty great choruses (even the title track, as easy as it is to mock for being reminiscent of a pretty bad He-Man movie, has a chorus that it pretty catchy and epic) and there’s quite a few moments which are just really enjoyable. I will say that the record feels a bit lacking in the middle (“Path to Light” is a bit on the dull side and “Matter of Hand” is a bit forgettable) and it doesn’t exactly end on the strongest of notes (“Young, Wild, Free” isn’t bad at all, but it feels like a weird choice to end the record on, as it doesn’t feel like it is actually providing a proper conclusion to the record: the ballad on the record, “Rules of the Game”, might have been a better pick in that regard), but, overall, I think the songwriting stands up fairly well and certainly shows that Palace’s songwriting is strong enough to be worthy of repeated listening.
The performances on the record are certainly very serviceable for what the band are doing, though they’re not particularly high on the technical side of things (which, to be fair, is more due to the nature of the material being one which does not encourage overly technical performances as opposed to any major flaws in the performances). Marcus Johansson’s drumming is pretty much what you’d expect from a drummer in a melodic hard rock band, mostly providing a solid background to the rest of the material that doing anything particularly impressive, and he does it to a reasonable standard, though without really offering that you haven’t heard before. Bassist Soufian Ma’Aoui (I’ve very glad I don’t have to try to pronounce this guy’s full name at the minute, I think I’d mangle it so badly that I’d be apologising for the rest of my life!), much like Johansson, is mainly providing a solid background to the rest of the material, so his performance isn’t particularly impressive, but it gets the job done. The guitar performances by Michael Palace and Rick Digorio are also reasonable for what the band are doing, being reasonable lacking in complexity, but getting the job done well enough. I don’t actually know who is providing the keyboards on the record, but they certainly know how to bring the authentic 80s feeling to the record and add something which, on its own merit, isn’t especially complex, but adds to the music in its own way and to such an extent that I don’t think the record would work without them.
Palace’s vocals are a bit iffy with me. On the one hand, his lower range is pretty solid (which he demonstrates nicely on “Rules of the Game”) and I can’t say that his voice fails to work for the band’s music at all, but his higher range…leaves something to be desired, to be polite. It’s not that he can’t sing in his higher range, but his higher range feels underdeveloped, with a vocal tone to it that isn’t particularly great (especially in his falsetto, which feels like Olli Herman’s, only even more grating than Herman’s can be at its worst) and ends up feeling like he is trying to do more with it than his voice is actually suited for. I’ll be fair and say that his voice is not the worst I’ve ever heard by any measure and he does manage to sing in a way which fits the music, but I think he might want to take a bit of time to refine his upper range before the band’s next record, as I can see his voice being a sticking point for a lot of people who might otherwise really enjoy the record.
The production on the record is…erm, I’m not going to lie, I think the production suffers from a few critical problems that make it hard to appreciate the record properly. The mix is the big one: it just feels like it’s pushed the vocals the keyboards to the front and forgotten to any boosting for anything else, with the end result that the rhythm guitar feels far too quiet whenever the keyboard or vocals kick in. This does result in the bass being pretty easy to hear, which is normally a plus in my book, but I think this overdoes it, as I actually found it easier to hear the bass guitar than I did to hear the rhythm guitar! The drums are reasonably OK in the mix, but they end up having to fill the gap left behind by the guitars and don’t do that, so it doesn’t really help much. There are worse mixes out there, but this feels pretty poor for a professional release on a label on the level of Frontier Records, as I’ve heard better produced on demos that have been independently recorded! The actual mastering still suffers from my usual complaint of mastering which is a bit louder than it needs to be, but it isn’t bad enough to justify making a huge fuss over. The record has been recorded well enough that everything sounds clear, though, so that deserves some praise, even though it feels like I’m damning the production with faint praise through doing so.
Ultimately, Master of the Universe is a reasonably well done record that only really suffers from a vocal performance which needs a bit of refining in some places, not bringing anything new to the scene and a surprisingly poor mix. There’s certainly a lot of enjoy on this record if you’re a fan of this style of music, but I think that there is still work that needs to be done if Palace want to hit the heights that they are capable of. That said, for a debut album in a genre which is easy to write off by most people, this really isn’t too bad and perhaps could be the starting point of a great career. It’s flawed in a major way that might hamper some people’s enjoyment of it, but this record is still worth checking out if you like melodic hard rock.
Master of the Universe will be released on the 26th of August by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.