|Musical Style: Melodic Power Metal||Produced By:|
|Record Label: Independent||Country Of Origin: Sweden|
|Year Released: 2014||Artist Website: Empire 21|
|Tracks: 11||Rating: 85%|
Drooling again? That’s alright; a new band featuring guitarist Carl Johan Grimmark has that effect. The reputation of Grimmark as one of the leading players within the power and progressive metal segments is a deserved one, as his body of work in Stockholm, Sweden’s Narnia (including six studio albums, one compilation and one live album) aptly attests. He has proven no less prolific outside of Narnia, with guest appearances on albums by Saviour Machine, Rob Rock, Audiovision and Divinefire while also recordings albums with System Breakdown, Full Force and his most recent group, Empire 21.
Empire 21 can trace its history to founding member’s drummer Tobias Enbert (Darkwater & Harmony) and vocalist Germán Pascual, who were part of the Narnia line up that toured in 2009. After Grimmark put an end to Narnia, Pascual fronted its final album Course Of A Generation (also 2009), he joined Empire 21 along with bassist Andreas Ålöv (A Secret River) and keyboardist John Svensson (Harmony). Pascual later departed Empire 21 and was replaced by Ricard Hulteke (The Rain Town Poets), who finalized the roster that completed work on its independently released self-titled debut album from the fall of 2014.
As one might imagine, Empire 21 draws upon a strong Narnia influence, particularly when factoring how Grimmark plays a lead songwriting role with both bands. Specifically, if a fan of later period Narnia albums such as the aforementioned Course Of A Generation and 2006 release Enter The Gate you will find a lot to like in Empire 21. The gist being a cohesive fusing of melodic metal (drawing upon the commercial leanings of the latter) and power metal (reflecting the heavier aspects to the former). It is not just Narnia, however, in that many of the Empire 21 riffs and melodies remind of Grimmark’s well-received self-titled solo release from 2007. Intertwined, at the same time, are occasional hints of the 2005 debut Audiovision album The Calling (in terms of keyboard sound) and Finland’s Mehida (from the standpoint of darker and emotional flavorings).
The first question to come to mind is how does Hulteke compare to Pascual? Whereas Pascual trends towards the higher end of things with a slight Dio quality to his delivery (his 2012 solo album A New Beginning gained him a wide fan base), Hulteke takes the more varied middle register approach. Consider how he can smoothly even things out (and at times brings to mind Thomas Vikström) but also reach down for some course grit and gravel not unlike Mark Boals and Jamie Rowe. Opener “When Your Falling” finds Hulteke standing out either way, as he lends equal parts luster and backbone to a song that while not the albums catchiest proves a good representation of the powerful Empire 21 sound with its raw edged heaviness.
Maintaining the guitar driven slant but in a more commercial package are “I Can’t”, interweaving placid verses with a catchy chorus approaching the anthem-like, and “All Is Lost”, heavier overall and with the same accessible proclivity playing a defined role. “100 Nights” highlights a more pronounced keyboard flair (the exquisite work of Svensson deserves note) while not backing from the engaging hook emphasis and “This Is My Story” a joining of a weightier and bottom heavy mid-paced edge with the trademark Empire 21 catchiness. The overall impression is that Empire 21 features some of the most melody driven material from Grimmark to date.
From a more intricate standpoint, “Empire 21” plays up a larger than life bass line and albums heaviest guitars (there is almost a palatial if not sublime feel to the song), while “No Matter The Winds Of Change” kicks up the tempo to tumultuous guitar riffs and Hulteke’s driving vocal performance (a slight progressiveness comes to the forefront here). A symphonic power metal essence stands out in the two- not to mention the Empire 21 transparent production. Likewise, “Heard It All” lends a progressive slant in starting to grand piano that transitions to bass guitar driven verses and rousing chorus carried at the more forthright tempo. The groups inherit commercial leanings also make their presence felt.
Outside the box is “Traveler” in aligning periodic bluesy slide guitar within a power/progressive framework: Guitars remain sturdy and dogged while chorus smoothly but restlessly maneuvers. In similar fashion, the forward keyboards to “Calling” lend an unexpected industrial tincture in aligning militant guitar riffs and another unyielding catchy chorus. The pair adds to the albums diversity.
Lone track not to do it for me is “Would You”, a somewhat basic - as far as Empire 21 is concerned - piece lacking (in my opinion) the hooks and technical fortitude of the albums better material. This is the only thing standing in the way of a 90% score (or higher). Speaking of which (and take this as more of a suggestion as opposed to critique) perhaps Empire 21 could have further diversified its songwriting by expanding upon its progressive side and deliver an epic in the 8 to 10 minute range. A ballad would have also proved complementary in light of Hulteke’s vocal abilities.
Along similar lines, a full length instrumental allowing Grimmark to showcase his licks and chops would be another good idea. One can understand as a result that one of my favorite aspects to the album is how it gives Grimmark generous opportunity to bestow his incredible soloing, which ranges from the fast fingered and intricate to slower and bluesy (it is great to hear him back after being on the sidelines the past several years!).
Any album featuring Grimmark’s songwriting, obviously, is going to reflect his faith and such is the case with Empire 21. “Empire” stands out in this regard:
And I saw a new heaven and I saw the world
This place I once knew
As the empire rises and heaven and earth must bow
On this day all things new
In the ruins and the flooded land
Out of the ashes we are risen by God’s hand
As does “This Is My Story":
This is my story
This is the essence of my life
I ask You forgive my sins and bring me home again
No matter what I failed in the past
No one will find me left in the dark
“Calling” proves aptly entitled:
Right now, can you hear me calling, calling?
To save you from this hell, I’m calling, calling
Listen closely now, this is what I want to say
We are heading down the drain and we don’t’ care
No matter what we choose, blinded by our human wisdom
We’re building castles in the sand
The focus of “No Matter The Winds of Change” is on man’s fallen nature:
We are victims of our weakness
We are suffering from ignorance and bitterness
We are nothing on this grain in space
That’s the doctrine… That’s the truth
All the love that was meant for us
It is time to reclaim what’s lost
On its self-titled debut, Empire 21 aligns equal parts heaviness and melody, an equation that works to perfection in the largely melodic and power metal-based format presented. Strengths in the areas of vocals and musicianship stand out equally in the process with songwriting largely consistent throughout. Empire 21, accordingly, has been one of the more anticipated releases in 2014 and certainly does not disappoint in this regard.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “When You’re Falling” (3:46), “I Can’t” (3:13), “All Is Lost” (3:43), “Traveler” (4:50), “Empire 21” (4:20), “100 Nights” (3:11), “Heard It All” (3:59), “This Is My Story” (3:33), “Calling” (4:31), “Would You” (2:56), “No Matter The Winds Of Change” (5:10)
Ricard Hulteke - Lead Vocals
CJ Grimmark - Guitars
John Svensson - Keyboards
Andreas Ålöv - Bass
Tobias Enbert – Drums