Being a metal reviewer/journalist in the 21st century is not always a glamorous job. In 2016, underground metal webzines are so plentiful and everyone does this on a volunteer basis, there is no money to be made in the music industry. The bands and record companies don’t make money, so the metal webzines, especially all of us at Lady Obscure Music Magazine under the incredible leadership of The Lady Herself, Nem Nol, we do what we do for the love and passion of the music we write about and review. Sometimes though, our passion and dedication is rewarded when a highly respected and talented musician goes out of their way to contact you and ask for an honest opinion on their unreleased project without sharing with the metal masses. This is something I personally do not take lightly and I was lucky enough to be contacted in early 2015 by guitarist/composer Michael Alexander of the newly formed Universal Mind Project, and I was honored that I was asked to listen to the (then) label-less album The Jaguar Priest. Founded in 2012 by Michael Alexander, Universal Mind Project began as a collaborative project between musicians from all around the globe to finally shape into a band with a solid nucleus consisting of Elina Laivera and Henrik Båth [Darkwater] on vocals, Michael Alexander on guitars and growls and Alex Landenburg [Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody] on drums.
Although this is an all-star album, don’t call it a metal opera. The only thing that The Jaguar Priest has in common with Avantasia is an impressive list of guest vocalists. The album is a combination of modern progressive/power metal combined with male and female vocals that utilize melody and power, as well as the interspersing of growl vocals for emphasis on certain parts of the album. The Jaguar Priest was mixed by Simone Mularoni [Ancient Bards, DGM, Vision Divine] at Domination Studios and the impressive Mayan inspired artwork was created by Jan Yrlund [Apocalyptica, Korpiklaani, Leah] at Darkgrove Design.
The album was composed by Michael Alexander and Elina Laivera and a lot of hard work was put into writing the best possible vocal lines for each guest vocalist gracing different songs on the album. The result is truly rewarding. Apart from Elina Laivera and Henrik Båth, the album also includes performances by Nils K Rue [Pagan’s Mind], Mark Jansen [Epica, Mayan], Charlie Dominici [ex. Dream Theater] and Diego Valdez [Helker] -forming an incredibly powerful team of vocalists, each of whom add their own distinctive style to the respective songs they perform on.
The album kicks off with the melodic progressive flair of Anthem For Freedom, a proggy keyboard-laden song which features Emanuele Casali of Italy’s DGM. The vocal interaction between Laviera (one of the most underrated female vocalists in melodic metal in this reviewers view!) and Båth. Their voices blend perfectly and Epica’s Mark Jansen, long revered as one of the best growlers in metal, adds his signature vocals to add the perfect amount of contrast to the Laivera’s angelic soaring voice and Båth’s signature power and smooth melodic delivery.
The next track, Truth is an aggressive and fast slice of prog metal with a brilliant synth melody as the basis of the songs structure and Mark Jansen’s growling vocals blending with Laivera and Båth. Laivera in particular shines here with her impressive upper register delivery and power on full display. Casali’s dexterity on the keys is nothing short of jaw dropping and guest bassist Mike LePond of Symphony X lays down a solid groove along with drummer Landenburg. Main musical composer and band leader Michael Alexander’s chugging rhythms and shredding guitar solos are tastefully done and show an incrediblly talented guitarist who is relatively new to the metal world at large!
Dreamstate is a much heavier song that is dominated with heavy riffs and Mark Jansen’s gruff vocals combined with Båth for a different dynamic than the preceding songs. The chorus sung by Båth on the other hand, is uplifting and majestic with gorgeous melodies and phrasing.
Diego Valdez of Helker adds his signature Dio-esque vocals to Awakened By The Light Univers. Valdez is one of the best pure metal vocalists today and his gruff traditional metal style fits the song perfectly! The chorus is infectious and has some brilliant vocal harmonies that will be stuck in the listener’s head immediately!
The albums frenetic pace slows down on the beautiful piano ballad A World That Burns, showcasing the amazing talents of Elina Laivera. Her vocal delivery and bittersweet emotive vocals will give the listener goosebumps. Anyone who is not familiar with Laivera’s previous work will immediately become a fan of this young talent with a bright future ahead of her.
The core vocalists of UMP, Elina and Henrik team up to deliver another of the albums highlights, The Force of Our Creation, a prog-tastic affair with a brilliant main melody, chugging guitars and dexterous guitar and keyboard solos that are reminiscent of Dream Theater’s finest work.
The pace of the album slows down for the mid-tempo melodic and powerfully progressive and majestic Seven, once again featuring the vocal ferocity of Diego Valdez, who shows his amazing range and power once again. On Bargain of Lost Souls, guest vocalist Nils K. Rue brings his unique vocal prowess to a song that seems to channel the progressive and space metal vibe of his band Pagan’s Mind. Rue’s vocals are a perfect fit for a song that has everything a fan of progressive metal could ask for, soaring vocals, frenetic keyboards, growling vocals, and chugging guitars.
The albums title track is nothing short of progressive metal brilliance, a tour de force of ethereal keys in the spirit of Dream Theater, which is quite fitting, since the lead vocals reins are given to former DT vocalist Charlie Dominici. I was never a huge fan of Dominici’s vocals on the one DT album he provided lead vocals for, When Dream And Day Unite, but the vocalist on display here sounds like a completely different singer, his vocal range and delivery have improved so much its hard to believe it’s the same vocalist!
The albums closing moment, Xibalba is a chugging, riff-laden progressive power metal song with Båth and Laivera providing an emotional and powerful duet with a strong vocal melody to layer over the heavy instrumentation. Alexander’s guitar solos are expertly crafted and blend perfectly with Casali’s keyboard work. The perfect closing of the album as it reaches a climax and pinnacle as the vocals reach for the stratosphere.
The Jaguar Priest is a monumental achievement in the realm of progressive metal, a true work of art that showcases the guest vocals, but they never overshadow the musical brilliance of the compositions. Universal Mind project have created a masterpiece of an album that is sure to top a majority of reviewers top releases of 2016.
Support the band’s campaign on Indigogo.