As many fans in the rock and metal world know, Sweden is a veritable breeding ground for excellent bands, with many great and long-lived established groups as well as new up-and-coming bands. Though its members are not new to the music industry, Empire 21 is one of the new bands emerging from the Swedish scene and they have created a debut album worth sitting up and noticing. Founded by drummer Tobias Enbert (Darkwater, Harmony) and vocalist Germán Pascual (Narnia, Solo), they soon recruited fellow bandmate and guitarist CJ Grimmark (Narnia, Jerusalem, Grimmark, Rob Rock, FullForce, Saviour Machine) to join the fledgling band. They soon rounded out the lineup by including John Svensson (Harmony, Songs by JR) on keyboards and Andreas Ålöv (A Secret River) on bass. Even though they had a somewhat rocky start, after original vocalist Germán Pascual decided to depart from the band before the album was released, they found a worthy replacement with relative newcomer Ricard Hulteke, whose background is mostly in blues, soul, and pop, but handles the metal genre admirably.
The album starts off with the track When You Are Falling, which begins with a hard-hitting guitar riff with pounding drums and bass as well as keyboard support. The vocals come in strongly and segue into a syncopated bridge, which leads into the catchy chorus that has a Darkwater/Harmony-esque sound to it. The guitar solo is soaring with plenty of shredding but yet it remains very melodic and fits well with the tune. As it echoes off into the background on a bend, the keyboards continue their riff to hold down their portion of the song while the drums and bass provide a grooving foundation until the reprise of the bridge and chorus until the clean cut ending.
I Can’t is a little more moderate in tempo, and starts off with guitar only, soon joined by bass and drums with an in-your-face introduction before the vocals enter. The verse vocals utilize the lower range, which are very rich with velvety slides, and then jump the octave for greater impact, and the chorus is very appealing and soaring. The solo section scales back with a light hang onto a chord with a repeating rhythm, and morphs into a low-range riff that is not fancy but complementary to the louder and more driving aspects of the other parts of the song, almost giving the listener a breather before the final chorus and outro that fades out with a synth effect.
The third track, All Is Lost, is the first single released by the band (hear in the video linked below) and is a very catchy song altogether with the prominent keyboard riff. As the piano fades in slowly with the main riff that also becomes the countermelody for the song, accented with the snare in a muted effect, the guitar, bass, and full drums come in full volume with a driving beat. The vocals then enter with their bluesy melody accented with blues guitar riffs. The bridge holds back with a half-time feel leading back into the hard-hitting chorus and subsequent verses, reprising again later in the song. The mid-range guitar solo stays in the blues vein with just a little embellished riff toward the end as it segues back to the chorus, which ends the song with a clean finale.
Traveler is a song that reminds me of the Spaghetti Westerns as it begins with the tremolo effect of the electric guitar along with an acoustic guitar strumming arpeggiated chords and the bluesy/western influence on the rock song. However, the “rock” part of this piece starts off momentarily to make sure the listener is not confused that the band has changed genres. It does pull back again when the first verse starts, with only drums, foundational bass, and a tremolo guitar line holding down the accompaniment to the low-range vocals; however, it builds before long back to a driving blues-inspired rock beat. This alternating pattern continues throughout the song between the more laid-back bluesy verses but rockier bridges and choruses. This song is particularly suited for Hulteke’s vocals, as he is able to dig into the vocals with the bluesy slides and bends in the melody. This is the only song of this style, departing from the more straightforward and consistent hard rock approach of the rest of the album, which allows for some diversity and change of pace (for good or for ill, depending on the listener’s preference).
The fifth track is the titular song of the album, Empire 21, which starts off with a driving beat by the bass and drums along with the main riff held down by the keyboards, which are accented by power chords on the guitar. It does not let up as the verse comes in at the same punchy rhythm, and segues into a memorable and melodic chorus. The middle of the song breaks into a chugging instrumental section along with a nicely executed guitar solo that comes to an echoing halt, only for the silenced to pave the way for the other-worldly synth riff to re-enter to reintroduce the beginning theme as the solid rock beat emerges again. The chorus reprises with a vocal descant over the final repeat, giving a sense of building finality as the last chorus ends.
100 Nights again begins hard-hitting from the start, but then becomes more techno during the verse with the keyboards taking over for a little while before diving into the grooving chorus with a great tandem with the parallel rhythms of the guitar, bass, and drums. This gut-punching chorus with the equally powerful vocals is a great aspect of the song, and trades off nicely with the different styles of the verses and brief instrumental interludes. The vocal jumps between the lower range on the verses and soaring to the higher vocals in the channels and choruses are nice touch in the evolution of the song, paralleling the lightness or heaviness of the instrumentation. The keyboards also are a great accent by providing beats and accoutrements that are so different from the other aspects of the song that they give the music a different flavor and complement the hard driving rock in an interesting relationship with each other.
The beginning of the seventh track, Heard It All, starts off with a classical piano feature that sounds like something one would hear at a Chopin concert rather than on a rock album, but it is beautifully played in a unique introduction unlike any other track on the album. It is short-lived, however, as the wall of sound from the band follows immediately after the introduction ends. The intro belies the true intention of the remaining three and a half minutes of the song, the high-powered, aggressively-tempered beat of the song. The high energy remains throughout the strong 4/4 beat particularly fueled by the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar while the keyboards make their appearance occasionally interspersed in small exposed pockets and the solo guitar makes quite the shredding appearance a little past halfway into the song. This song is very in your face (in a good way) and is definitely headbanging-worthy. (hear parts of this song in the album teaser in the video linked below)
This Is My Story begins off strongly as well, but eases up a bit on the verses and builds from the bridge to the chorus, the pattern which maintains throughout the song. The keyboards have a nice countermelody/line to the guitar and vocal lines during the introduction and the choruses in particular. The low-range vocals during the verses showcase the richness displayed in this octave, and they gain power as they go higher during the bridge and into the chorus. This eighth track is relatively short, with the verse-bridge-chorus pattern repeating 3 times total in the song (the third time the verse and bridge are the basis for the guitar solo before the final reprise of the chorus) with a clean-cut ending after the last chorus. The overall feel is more mellow with less flourish than the previous track, but still retains a driving groove with a catchy melody to earworm into your head for a good while.
Up next is Calling, the ninth track that starts with a solo guitar riff in a single channel, which switches to dual channel as the band enters full blast with the moving groove that continues well into the vocals with no sign of letup until the chorus, when the feel drops to half-time. Despite being less machine-gun-in-your-face beats during the chorus, it remains engaging with a rousing melody that is very singable and would be very crowd-friendly in a live setting. During the solo interlude about halfway through the song, the is a brief reprieve as the band drops out for a few seconds a couple of times with a muted guitar line holding the song together before the solid re–entry of the chorus and main song riff that plays out the song.
Would You begins with a synth sound effect as the introduction begins with the keyboards carrying the main melody over the rhythm guitar, bass, and drums. It fades into the verse that is initially very bass- and drum-driven with a bit of keys overlaid, but builds in instrumentation as the verse continues and segues into the chorus, which is heavier and driven by syncopated rhythmic foundation underneath the soulfully soaring vocals. After another cycle of the verse and chorus, following the solo section there is also a nice key change at about two and a half minutes along, giving the song a lovely interesting twist before this little fire ant of a song comes to an end. This song overall reminds me a bit of Masterplan in its style, and it doesn’t take long to get its message across as the shortest song on the album at just under three minutes in length, but is no less powerful.
No Matter the Winds of Change, the last track on the album, is an anthemic song that is the longest of the album and encourages the listeners to stay firm in their beliefs even when the cultural shifts in society are fickle. It starts off with the main guitar riff and drums, but continues to build as the bass and keys layer in to the full-fledged in-your-face introduction. The chorus of this song is very rallying and draws the listener in. Hulteke’s vocals really shine on this song, and really showcases the power, vibrato, and range of his voice, along with some blues tricks that accent parts of the melodies in subtle but highly effective ways. Everything about this song is very solid, with definite beats and rhythms, shining keyboards, and shredding guitar and is a fitting finale to this powerful album. (hear parts of this song in the album teaser in the video linked below)
Empire 21’s S/T album is very strong all around. There is not a weak track on the album, and the amount of time and effort put into birthing this record is noticeable. In a supergroup-like lineup, the chemistry and balance between all of the band members creates a solid and wonderfully blended whole. The album is a straightforward heavy melodic metal style, with occasional blues influences, and provides concise and hard-hitting songs that are musically interesting but definitely get the point across in their relatively short song durations (averaging about 4 minutes a song). It showcases their own style that is not just a regurgitation of the style of members’ other bands in some Frankensteinian conglomeration, but each member brings to the table their own strengths with the foundation of experienced songwriting. Even this album shows Grimmark’s growth and breadth of style as the main songwriter, with the songs presenting as very accessible and even something that could be radio-friendly for further exposure. His sense of melody for the songs and solos is strong, and he uses his shredding ability in moderation, bringing the flourishes only as needed rather than using his reputable neo-classical showiness that he has been known for often in his previous work. Enbert’s drumming is solid and gives good support to the songs, keeping them driving and accenting the other instrumentation, while Ålöv’s basswork plays in tandem with the drums to lay down a good foundation for each song. They form a great rhythm team and hold down the fort of each song with a precise and pounding beat. Svensson’s keyboards provide a nice touch to the songs, giving great countermelodies or riffs and sounds that enhance each track in both subtle and more overt ways. Lastly, Hulteke’s vocals fit very well with this style of music, and his bluesy background contributes some nice slides and inflections that keep the vocal lines interesting. His timbre is pleasant without being too harsh or too soft and his range on the songs seems comfortable and solid. The production sound is clear and balanced and a good mix that is better than many records I have heard throughout the recent past. This is an album I could listen to over and over and easily recommend to others to check out and purchase for their music collection.
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