Album Review: Pretty Maids – “Kingmaker”

I’m probably about to surprise most readers by admitting that I’ve never actually listened to Pretty Maids before now, which is really weird, because I’ve loved Ronnie Atkins’ voice every time I’ve heard it in the past, so you’d have thought that I’d have been a huge fan of them for a long time (or, at least, that I’d have caught up with them since I reviewed Nordic Union’s debut album early this year). Honestly, the truth is just that I’ve had that much else taking up my time that I’ve never got around to them (and, if some recent private news I’ve received is any indication, I won’t have an opportunity before the end of the year either), although I’ve already made a note to focus on catching up with the band when I get a chance.

Still, that’s not really important at the minute. What is important is just exactly who Pretty Maids are. Well, they’re a hard rock/heavy metal band from Denmark who, while not all that well known in the UK, have been very prolific (with this being their 15th album) and having been around since 1981. While their most recognisable member is easily Ronnie Atkins (especially since his ability to swap between a very clean, melodic singing style and a very vicious harsh snarl makes him very recognisable and his harsher vocals have influenced some extreme metal singers), it is easy to forget that guitarist Ken Hammer has also been in the band since it formed. The rest of the band’s current lineup is bassist Rene Shades (who was briefly in the band in 2004, but rejoined in 2011 and has been in the band since then) and drummer Alan Tschicaja (who joined in 2006). They have also had a keyboardist throughout their whole career, although their most recent keyboardist, Morten Sandager, left the band in February this year and no replacement has been announced yet. There ARE still keyboards on this record, but no keyboardist has been credited on the promo sheet I received, so…yeah, for all I know, the band got an especially well trained group of mice to run over the keyboard and provide the parts on the record. I highly doubt they WOULD have done that (for starters, it’s a rather impractical solution when you could just get a session musician to provide the parts), but I like the mental image of mice running across a keyboard while hard rock music is playing in the background too much to want to think otherwise!

…Yeah, OK, maybe that mental image is a bit silly.

Anyway, trained keyboard playing mice aside (now there’s a series of words that I didn’t think I’d ever get an opportunity to type in my life…), what do I think of Kingmaker? Well, to be very honest…it’s really great! It has flaws, but it is still an incredibly strong record and those flaws do not detract from the experience at all unless you’re the sort of grumpy sod who likes nitpicking stuff to death (…what’s everyone looking at me for?).

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The band’s sound…being honest, I’m actually faintly reminded of Jaded Heart’s release from earlier this year (Guilty by Design), as it’s a record that dances over the line between metal and hard rock so much that it’d probably just be easier to say that they’re both at the same time and move on. Where I feel Pretty Maids differ from Jaded Heart is that they have a far stronger sense of melody that justifies some glam comparisons and that their lighter moments are definitely light enough that one could probably get away with referring to those moments as pure pop (although it’d require a lot of clarifying statements and definition of terms: we’re hardly talking about a resemblance to Katy Perry or Madonna here!). It’s a sound which is pretty diverse overall, but it is all tied together in a way which fits together really well and helps the band to sound distinctive in comparison to other bands in the melodic metal spectrum and, while it’s not really bringing anything new to the table overall, it’s hard to deny that it works brilliantly, as it shows that the band are just as good at rocking loudly and proudly as they are at performing softer material.

The songwriting is top notch as well. I usually highlight some songs that I don’t think stand up well, but, while there are moments in songs which I don’t think flow properly (“Civilized Monsters” in particular has a moment that is practically screaming for a far faster paced tempo follow up than what actually happens), there are no songs on here which I actually find to be anything less than enjoyable. There are some truly excellent tracks on here, like “Face the World”, “Heavens Little Devil” and ballad “Last Beauty on Earth”, but even the tracks which aren’t as good still have some great moments that make them worth hearing and do enough right that it tips them towards being worth including on the record. If I do have one criticism of how the whole record fits together, I think that the record starts to lose some momentum as it goes along and that it probably should have had “Face the World” swapped with something like “Civilized Monsters” from closer towards the end of the record to help break this perception a bit more, but, even then, that’s not really a major problem, as it still pulls through that problem well enough as it is.

The performances aren’t going to be winning prizes for being virtuosic at all, but they are still solid enough overall that I can’t really complain too much. Hammer’s guitar playing is pretty solid, with a decent variety of riff work on display that prevents his playing from getting too monotonous across the album, but he avoids doing so much that it comes across as him showing off his skills at the expense of the actual material. He doesn’t do anything mindblowing on the technical front, but he definitely know how to play the instrument well and with appropriate restraint, so I can’t fault him at all on that front! Shades’ bass playing is more competent than anything else, as he doesn’t really do a huge amount of any interest across the record and more serves to ground the rest of the material, but this is pretty much par for the course with this style of music and it’s likely that this is more just a case of being what the material called for than an indication of his actual skill level as a bass player, so it’s not really a major problem overall, just a bit disappointing for someone like myself who likes the bass to do more than just grounding the rest of the material. Tschicaja’s drumming is a bit more complex than what you might expect from a style of music like Pretty Maids’ style, which makes some sense when you consider he was good enough to be a live drummer for Royal Hunt back in 2002, but it never comes across as overly busy like Thomen Stauch’s drumming sometimes did in Blind Guardian, which says a lot in my eyes about his skills as a musician. The keyboards don’t really add a huge amount to the vast majority of the material, but they’re definitely competently played, so there’s not really a huge amount to say here.

Ronnie Atkins’ voice…well, let’s put it this way: when I was discussing Nordic Union’s record early this year, my big criticism is that he sounded just like a typical singer in the melodic rock style and could have been replaced by any other vocalist without anything feeling wrong. That problem is NOT the case here: you can tell that he’s right at home here and he gets an opportunity to really demonstrate his voice to the best of his ability, which means that his voice showcases that side which you hear in the melodic rock spectrum that was on Nordic Union’s album, but he brings out the harsher edge that he wasn’t give a chance to bring out there and it is truly worth it, because he sounds ferocious when he does and every song feels like it’s had a great kick in energy whenever it happens (although it helps that he uses it rather tastefully and doesn’t overdo it throughout the record). While his clean vocal tone definitely sounds like it is coming from a man who is now in his fifties, this doesn’t detract from the fact that he still sounds better than a lot of vocalists who have been around just as long as he has (and better than quite a few newer vocalists as well, if I’m completely honest!) and I never felt like any of his performances on the record were less-than-great. All told, I’m actually rather impressed that Atkins sounds this great at this point in his career and I doubt anyone who has been following the band’s career at all could be disappointed with his vocals on here!

The only major criticism I have is the record’s production, which is, unfortunately, very loudly mastered. It’s probably not too surprising that this has happened, as the record was produced by Jacob Hansen (who has done work with extreme metal bands, a part of the metal spectrum which is NOTORIOUS for loud mastering), but I can’t help feeling a bit frustrated that this issue has happened here, as Pretty Maids’ style is music isn’t really one which needs to be excessively loud. I’ll be fair, there ARE worse production jobs out there, but still, consider me unimpressed on that front. Beyond that criticism, though, the record sounds reasonably good (although I do notice a slight…hollow sound, I guess is the best way I can put it? It’s like there’s a noticeable gap behind the music and everything’s been pushed forward in the mix to try to hide that!), with a sound that, while clearly digital, doesn’t sound overly polished and a mix that, while lacking enough bass for my personal liking, gets the job done nicely. There’s also no audible issues with the sound of the instruments, which indicates good work on the part of the recording engineer. So yeah, aside from the mastering complaint, the sound criticism and the bass nitpick, there’s not really a lot to complain about here.

Overall, in spite of the record’s production being weaker than it should be, Kingmaker is a pretty great record and one that I find really easy to recommend to pretty much anyone who is a fan of melodic metal and hard rock. It’s a really great record from a band who have been around for so long that you’d be forgiven for thinking they didn’t have a record like this in them any more and is one that I can see going down well with both fans of the band and newcomers to them. Potential album of the year material? Hmm…tough call, but the fact I’m seriously considering that question and can’t immediately say that it won’t be really says far more about how good it is than any accolade would have done!

Kingmaker will be released on the 4th of November by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.

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