Saturday, 24 May 2014

Unisonic "For The Kingdom" EP Review

Unisonic have to be one of those supergroups that, if you didn't know what style of music they were playing, you'd be practically drooling over. You have ex-Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske, ex-Helloween, ex-Primal Fear and Gamma Ray guitarist (and vocalist, although he only provides backing vocals here) Kai Hansen, two members of Pink Cream 69 (drummer Kosta Zafiriou, who is no longer in the band, and bassist Dennis Ward, who is still in Pink Cream 69 and also provides backing vocals here) and occasional Krokus guitarist Mandy Meyer. So, with two power metal legends in the band and three members connected to hard rock, surely we must be in for some awesome power metal right out of the Keeper Of The Seven Keys duo, right?

...Ah, metalheads. Got to love their ability to ignore time!

Seriously, though, if you were looking at Unisonic self-titled debut album that came out in 2012 and were expecting anything even slightly like the Keepers duo, you probably went in with the wrong expectations entirely. You only needed to check out a single Place Vendome album to get an idea of what this project was likely to sound like, as it was about the closest reference most people would have had to the sound likely to occur. Throw in Gamma Ray's most recent album at the time Unisonic's debut came out (2010's To The Metal!) having a noticeably less complex approach to the music and, well, it would have been more reasonable to have assumed that we'd at most get something like that, only with Kiske singing instead of Kai.

So, with that in mind, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by their debut when I got it. True, saying it was a great album would be stretching the truth a bit, but the more laid back sound across the whole album compared to Gamma Ray was a nice change and I still enjoy giving a few songs from the album a listen every now and then (with a particular favourite being "Never Change Me"). It wasn't an album that would have lived up to the expectations placed on it, though: if you'd approached it with the assumption of hearing something like the Keepers duo, you'd no doubt have come away horribly disappointed, as it was probably best summed up as "hard rock with power metal touches". Still, for what it was, it was enjoyable enough.

Plus, I have more than a sneaky suspicion that taking part in Unisonic allowed Kai to recharge his batteries, as Gamma Ray's album from this year, Empire Of The Undead, was probably the heaviest album Gamma Ray have put out to date. It's probably a coincidence, but the timing for it matches up, so let me having my little conspiracy theory on that one, at least!

Anyway, Unisonic decided that, rather than give us a single for their upcoming album, they would drop an EP, with four live tracks, an exclusive track (which is no doubt going to end up becoming a bonus track on the final album in some markets...) and a track that will be on the album, which is due to be released in early August. So, being a curious git, I decided to check out the EP! What do I think of it? Well, let's find out, in this unofficial addition to The Singles Collection (since, well, it's technically a single if you remove the live tracks...)!

First of all, let's see the cover art for the EP. Erm...I don't like it much. Yellow and brown isn't an especially good combination of colours to start with, but I'm also not so fond of the change in the logo. The original one was brilliant, but this? My best way of describing it is that it's like the band decided to take apart a clock and use the contents of that to form their name. Maybe I'm being unfair, but the original logo had a charm and simplicity to it that worked, in orange (as seen on the Ignition EP) or blue (as seen on the Unisonic album). This just...doesn't work for me.

Anyway, now we've done at looking at that, let's look at the studio tracks!

First of all, we have the track that's going to be on the next album, "For The Kingdom". Musically, it's pretty heavy compared to most of what the band did on their last album, although saying it really enters power metal territory would probably be a bit untruthful, as it's still got a solid base in hard rock music (although it's definitely more complex than typical hard rock music: it doesn't sound like the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from AC/DC, at least!). Vocally, you can tell that Kiske is pretty much in his comfort zone throughout this track, as he doesn't push himself to do any of the impressive high notes that he demonstrated he could still do on "Where Clock Hands Freeze" from Avantasia's 2013 album The Mystery Of Time. Mind you, Kiske singing in his comfort zone is still better than most vocalists pushing themselves to sing at their best, so that's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it would be good to see Kiske push his voice a bit more, even if only to reassure power metal fans that he has embraced his connection to the power metal scene now. The actual song itself, based on my few listens to it, doesn't stand out on the same level as "Unisonic" does, but it has a catchy chorus and some brilliant soloing from both Hansen and Meyer. I think the verses of the song could have done with a better vocal melody, as it doesn't really stick in my mind very well (and vaguely reminds me of that from another Unisonic song, for some reason...can't place which one, though!), but the whole song is pretty enjoyable if you approach it without the expectation of hearing something out of the Keepers duo (which I've probably mentioned more times than I should have over the course of this review...).

Next up, the EP exclusive track, "You Come Undone". And it already starts off on a wrong foot for me: most of the lead part at the start of the song is pretty much the opening riff of Judas Priest's "The Sentinel", with a few minor changes to it to try to throw you off. Since that's one of my favourite Judas Priest songs and is one of the band's songs that most of their fans could hum along to in their sleep ...yeah, you're not going to impress the Priest fans by doing that, guys! Still, for what it's worth, once the song gets past that minor annoyance for me, it genuinely is a very enjoyable song! Strong vocal melody throughout the song, great playing on the part of all of the musicians and Kiske even puts on a very inspired performance compared to "For The Kingdom"! This is probably closer to being power metal than "For The Kingdom" is and strikes me as the more enjoyable track without too much difficulty, which begs the question of why the band made this the EP exclusive track and not the track that was going on the album. If it was genuinely just due to the members thinking "For The Kingdom" was the stronger song, then I think that they might want to get someone to provide an extra ear to let them know when they have a song that they should keep for the album. If it's because it's not typical of what the rest of the album sounds like...well, I suspect we're going to be in for a rather dull second album by the band, as "For The Kingdom" didn't win me over quite as quickly as "You Come Undone" did.

And now we come to what is basically a four song live EP, recorded when the band made their live appearance at 2012's Masters Of Rock Festival. Understandably, the songs are taken from the band's first (and, at the time, only) album and are "Unisonic" (with an introduction in the form of Wagner's "The Ride Of The Valkyries" and followed with a variety of movie quotes. Because when you think of hard rock, you think of Wagner and the movies...), "Never Too Late", "Star Rider" (which was one of my least favourite songs on the band's debut album) and "Souls Alive". Not a lot to say about them really, if you liked the original songs, you get them basically played just as well as you do on the studio versions. Kiske seems to struggle a bit at the start of "Unisonic", but he recovers very quickly and delivers the songs very well in a live environment. The crowd are VERY audible for a lot of the time the live tracks are playing, which really adds to "Unisonic" in particular when you hear the crowd enthusiastically singing the chorus of the song without Kiske (presumably because he got the crowd to sing it and not because he forgot the words). Kai and Ward can be heard providing backing vocals a few times, but, for the most part, they only do it noticeably on "Star Rider": for the most part, you could be forgiven for barely noticing them otherwise. If I had to make a major criticism of the live tracks that isn't actually related to the band's music, it's that the band don't really interact with the audience much, from what I hear on the EP. Beyond getting the audience to join in with the singing a few times, the only time the band really acknowledges the audience is for a tiny bit between "Never Too Late" and "Star Rider" (which isn't even much: it's literally just Kiske saying "Hey! You're looking good!"). To be fair, it's a festival appearance, so the band wouldn't have a lot of time to, say, give a long winded chat with the audience like "Hey! We're Unisonic and it's great to be hear at Master Of Rock Festival! You seen some good bands since you got here? I don't think I heard you, I said "YOU SEEN SOME GOOD BANDS SINCE YOU GOT HERE?" Wow, OK, I heard you that time! Well, hopefully those of you who didn't feel like answering will be coming away saying "I saw Unisonic and they were brilliant!", although probably not with that choice of words! We're going to play a tune that we hear a lot of you guys really like, so how do you feel about hearing "Souls Alive"?", but it seems a tiny bit rude to not at least try to make the audience feel like they're being welcomed to see you play live. End of the day, you might be getting paid to play live, but your audience are the people who have taken time out of their lives (some of which can be very busy, depending on their jobs and personal lives) just to see you perform, so you might as well make them feel welcome while you're there! Unless you're playing a style of music which is MEANT to make you feel uncomfortable or isn't meant to be especially cheerful, like extreme metal, or you're like Dir En Grey, whose music might as well be labelled under "WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN" for their genre, you should at least try to interact with your audience.

The production on the studio tracks is pretty good, but I think the issue I have to return to is my typical one: the mastering is too loud (although it does give the songs a nice, metallic sound to them which I quite like) and the bass feels lacking in the production. The live tracks are honestly a nice way to highlight the issue with studio production, as I'd say the production on the live tracks, aside from the backing vocals being too quiet, is pretty much what I'd consider to be a perfect example of what you should be able to sound like on record (only without any flaws in the performance, of course!). Call me old fashioned or stuck in the dark ages, but one of the things I like about recordings from the 50's (and with folk music in general) is that it was all done in one take, so, if you messed up, you had to go from the top again. Sure, that might be impractical in this day and age (especially for longer songs: I HIGHLY doubt Dream Theater could have recorded their epic songs all in one take like artists in the 50's could), but a good quality live recording always sounds better to my ears than a studio recording done with modern production, as you can actually hear all of the instruments without any difficulty in most cases and the issue with loudness is USUALLY avoided (I say "USUALLY" because, if you have a poor sound technician, you can still end up basically falling victim to the loudness war, but that's why a poor sound tech doesn't tend to get work with any professional bands!). Ironically, I don't like live albums much because I like to hear the songs how the artist intended them to sound as opposed to how they have to sound in a live environment due to various restrictions (not to mention that I don't see the point of buying the same tracks again unless there's been some noticeable reworking of them: for example, I might buy a record where an artist worked with an orchestra for a special show, but not if it's just a typical show!), but I guess that's a debate for another time!

So, final thoughts? Well, the EP exclusive track is definitely worth picking up, the live tracks are very solidly performed (if lacking in terms of how the band interact with their audience), the track that will be on the band's upcoming album is fine (if not as good as the EP exclusive track) and, aside from my usual complaints about modern day production being noticeable here, it's all pretty good! If you have a spare £4 and are interested in hearing what Unisonic can do if you don't compare them to Helloween, it's definitely worth picking up! If you're not interested in Unisonic unless they sound like a complete (if modern) clone of the Keepers duo...let it go, dude, it's not going to happen! But seriously, you'll likely not find this worth picking up unless you enjoyed their debut album.

Final Rating: 8 Out Of 10

A very enjoyable EP that will tide over Unisonic fans happily until the release of the band's second album in August. While I'm slightly concerned that "For The Kingdom" is not the best song of the two studio recordings and what this means for Unisonic's next album, it's still a strong enough song that I'm already awaiting the pre-order link for the full album to go up!

Personal Favourite Track: "You Come Undone"

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