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While they are best known for their two albums with vocalist D.C. Cooper in the 1990s, Danish power metallers Royal Hunt had two full-length releases prior to Cooper's arrival. Before they shipped out for the glitzy American singer, Royal Hunt were an all-Danish outfit, including original vocalist Henrik Brockmann. In addition to Brockmann's rough-edged vocals sitting in the space Cooper's clean, operatic baritone was soon to occupy, neither of the band's first two albums, 1992's Land of Broken Hearts or the followup Clown in the Mirror. is graced with anywhere near the sort of production of the band's following (eleven, and counting) releases. Perhaps it improved slightly from the debut album to the sophomore followup, but bandleader Andre Andersen's keyboard tones still sound stale and amateurish, so the attempts to have an elegant, stately neoclassical sound are often undermined. Kenneth Olsen's snare is a bit too loud, overpowering the guitars when hit. It's not that the tones are altogether offensive, but the scope of the vision makes the production seem more unsuitable than it would if the ambitions here were more modest.
As such, Clown in the Mirror, much like its predecessor, isn't easy to appreciate if you have no context for it. Brockmann's a decent enough vocalist, but he's not going to carry a band by himself. Guitarist Jacob Kjaer, for the entirety of his tenure in the band, always played third fiddle to Andersen's keys and whoever the vocalist was; while he's a capable player, his role in the band usually consists of playing counterpoint riffs and restrained, melodic leads, not exactly the sort of fare that transcends the lo-fi cloud that hangs over this recording. In 2016, recording technology has advanced far enough that plenty of bands in the genre (this one included) have one or more albums of high quality and high production values. Albums like Clown in the Mirror sound dated and obsolete, artifacts of their times; thus, it's a terrible place to start listening to Royal Hunt if you're not familiar with them.
However, if you do know the band from some or all of their then-future glories, this album actually is quite a compelling retrospective listen. It's not as though Andersen suddenly figured out how to write neoclassical power metal songs on the eve of Moving Target; he knew how to here, and indeed, even on Land of Broken Hearts before. Listen past the chintzy production and you'll ideas every bit as well-formed as those on Moving Target or Paradox. Urgent opener "Wasted Time" springs forth with energy and power. The wistful title track builds from a piano-and-vocals intro into a graceful yet forceful semi-ballad. "Legion of the Damned" sits at a similar pace; it's tough to deny a melody as well-constructed as its chorus. The beautiful multisection "Epilogue" is still the band's concert closer for good reason. Sure, some of the other songs sound a little less well-formed than later Royal Hunt pieces; consider that this album has three songs under four minutes. The band almost never had a sub-four-minute track later (intros, instrumentals, and transitions aside). Still, though, even these shorter, tossed-off songs like "Ten To Life" and "On The Run" pass by with energy, vigor, and strong melodic presence.
Now, some of these tracks are available in better form with later singers in live or re-recorded form. The title track and "Legion of the Damned" were re-recorded on The Watchers with John West, who also sang a great version of "Wasted Time" on the 2006 Live album. Various versions of some of these songs also exist live with Cooper on vocals. Given the higher quality of the production of those performances, many of them can be considered the "definitive" versions of these pieces. However, these original versions also hold their own intrigue. Brockmann's edgy delivery, while limited and imperfect in many ways compared to his successors, makes for actually quite a bracing listen. Royal Hunt are many things, but they rarely sound daring or untamed in the way Brockmann pushes them here. This is a band that has cultivated such a layered, no-notes-out-of-place sound that it's compelling to hear them as a young band, full of energy and just tearing through quick-hitting pieces. That's not to say that this intrigue overcomes the album's somewhat lightweight nature and its sonic limitations, but for me, it's better to see a band fighting to transcend the limitations forced on them than creating limitations of their own (looking at you, modern version of this band!).
Ultimately, Clown in the Mirror is more of a curiosity listen than anything else, but it's a good one. It clearly shows the band ready to burst out on their next album with a fully-realized vision and sonic identity, and has some gems in its own right.
Royal Hunt begin to come fully into their own on "Clown In The Mirror". The album departs from the heavily hook laden "Land Of Broken Hearts" largely because there's variety. The band's progressive elements are in full glare and guitars, bass and drums are accommodated comfortably and given ample spotlight unlike "Land Of Broken Hearts" which thrived on keyboards tinkery and the predominance of vocals.
On songs like "Intro/Wasted Time" and "On The Run" you can hear the change. There's several guitar riffs interspersed carefully into the keyboard melodies and they all maintain their metal heaviness with the bass pummeling along in tandem and the drums given presence. "Ten To Life" sounds like a Queen song with its nicely layered guitar vocal harmonies. For that matter so does the title track, "Clown In The Mirror", a somber ballad whose bluesiness is undermined by the rather happy sounding melodies. Both score high marks for their fat layers of sound.
The other songs of note are "Bodyguard" which besides being really catchy and fun to sing along to, is also armed with one of the funkiest bass lines ever conjured in metal. The guitar solo plays like a breath of fresh air after all the excitement. It is not rushed but neither does it wander aimlessly. It plays and goes leading us back to Henrick Brockmann's rousing vocal performance. "Legion Of The Damned" has well penned lyrics and Brockmann's delivery simply inspires awe. The song also contains some grim guitar riffing which is unfortunately obscured to a minimal extent by the synthetic atmospherics. However when the solo kicks in, Jacob Kjaer utterly lets loose riding on scalar runs supported by principle songwriter André Andersen's keyboards, the both of them employing intricate harmonic phrases and milking emotion of a somber quality from them.
"Bad Blood" is simple and sheer hard rocking fun, immediately likable and easy to sing along to. Royal Hunt thrive with songs such as this. Not too intricate but not dumbed down either. "Epilogue" closes things out and would be a great stage song. Theatrical flowery melodies clash dramatically with chugging guitar and bass riffs and Kenneth Olsen's sometimes steady, sometimes odd n' insane pounding. The whole thing skids to a halt giving way to sorrowful piano and sounds Brockmann eerily singing like the ghost of Freddie Mercury.
Whereas the band would be more firmly established with the arrival of D.C Cooper on the "Moving Target" album and onwards, "Land Of Broken Hearts" and "Clown In The Mirror" serve their purpose as preamble well enough. They aren't landmark by any stretch but they "pave the way" and build up anticipation for you get the feeling that the Hunt is just getting started.