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Proving that even an old band can learn new tricks - 96%

ijy10152, February 23rd, 2021

I first discovered Royal Hunt in 2010 with their tenth album release synonymously titled X. I thought the music was good, but I didn't dig the vocalist which didn't encourage me to check out any more of the band’s discography. Of course, I proceeded to promptly miss their vocalist change in 2011 back to their beloved, well-known vocalist D.C. Cooper. Then when everyone was making a big deal out of A Life to Die For, I decided to give them another try and I immediately loved it. I fell in love with Cooper’s voice right away, but that’s not the only thing to love on this album: the massive use of symphonics and the cool old-style rock feel of this album make it a lot of fun. It’s a bit short at 46 minutes long, but there’s enough material in it to keep us well entertained.

There’s only seven songs, but this time they're sandwiched between a pair of nine-minute pseudo epics -- an always interesting album layout. "When Hell Comes Down from Heaven" is up first and it's the longest song on the album. It begins with some epic orchestrations that build up to a climax where they insert the guitars and the drums, and makes for a really effective introduction without using an obligatory minute-long intro track. This song shows us an example of a mid-paced/slow song done correctly; it keeps us interested with some really catchy memorable lyrics/vocals and varied rhythms aided by the aforementioned orchestrations. Catchy and epic pretty much describes this entire album.
Following in the footsteps of its predecessor Show Me How to Live, while I'm not quite prepared to say this is better, A Life to Die For is certainly at least as good while continuing to use the sound they established with the previous album in some great ways.

Cooper’s voice sounds better than ever, and coupled with such excellent vocal melodies, it’s nothing short of incredible. Every song on this is a highlight and just incredibly memorable, but "Running out of Tears" really caught my attention because this is where they really bring in the “classic rock” feel I mentioned earlier, tambourine and all. Also this is the song where it sounds more like prog rock than metal. The title track is another one that really shines. You've got to love it when the title track ends up being, if not the best track, one of the best, because so rarely do title tracks live up to the rest of the album. Thankfully, this title track does live up to the rest of the album. It has the riffs, it has the chorus, it has epic arrangements, and it just kicks ass. "Sign of Yesterday" is another standout that continues the classic rock feel of "Running out of Tears" with a really awesome chorus.

Everything on this album is incredibly catchy and memorable; the melodies are excellent, the orchestrations tasteful and well-done, the vocals are awesome and are as good or better than they've ever been. The only real complaints I could possibly come up with are that the record could be longer and the orchestrations occasionally overpower the guitars on some parts. So if you're not a big fan of symphonic stuff, then you might not enjoy this as much as I did. But for me, really, it didn't present a problem. A Life to Die For is an amazing album and the only question worth asking is “Are you listening to this right now?” If the answer is no, then you say “Well, why the hell not?” and then make them listen to this. Royal Hunt's latest album is one of the biggest surprises of 2013 and it has catapulted into my top five of the year. Seriously, it’s that good.

Royal Hunt - A Life To Die For - 51%

GOOFAM, October 4th, 2015

Sigh.

Even in his prime, D.C. Cooper was always an acquired taste. His unique approach to singing gives a very nasal feel to much of his three-octave-plus range, and the Pittsburgh native has such strange diction that he frankly sounds more foreign than original Royal Hunt singer Henrik Brockmann, cutting an odd mix of an opera singer's flair and Serj Tankian's eccentricities. So, the man has earned his share of naysayers. Still, though, there's no denying that back in the day, Cooper's energy, dramatic baritone vocalizing, and effortless head voice gave Royal Hunt (and later Silent Force) a vocal edge over many of their competitors. Paradox remains the band's biggest achievement, and it's largely due to Cooper's uniqueness, something that technically superior successors John West and Mark Boals were able to approximate in their own way at times, but never quite equal.

And, hey, when Andre Andersen & Co. decided to go back to the singer who put them on the map in 2011, the resulting album (Show Me How to Live) wasn't half-bad. The sonics were good, the songs were written for Cooper's voice, and he mostly delivered, producing one of the best RH songs ("Half Past Loneliness") and quite a few other solid tracks, even if the album as a whole leaves less of an impression than past RH discs with Cooper (and some with others, as well). However, live footage of the reunited group (at least, reunited singer and bandleader) cast Cooper in a far more negative light, as he seemingly couldn't make it through a single song without messing up lyrics, and his voice didn't usually seem to be in good shape.

Unfortunately, it's the latter observation that sets the stage for 2013's A Life To Die For, which is the album where Royal Hunt jumps the shark. Or, more accurately, Cooper jumps the shark and pulls an otherwise perfectly good band down with him.

Here, Andersen's written seven typically dramatic, bombastic neoclassical rockers, filling the sonic space with the typical Royal Hunt bells and whistles of string patches that sound like they come from NFL Films, big choir sounds, walls of Kenny Lubcke backing vocals, etc. And the songs are written well for Cooper's voice...circa 1997. And therein lies the problem.

It's not that Cooper has gone all Warrel Dane and completely lost half of his range. He's still more or less capable of hitting all the notes he could back in the Paradox days. But on about half of the vocal lines on this album, he sounds like he's being strangled. It crops up on many of the high passages, and even quite a bit of the midrange verse and chorus singing. It's not the entire album--there are moments when you go "There it is!"--"it" being...what you'd expect a 46-year-old D.C. Cooper to sound like. But these moments are drowned out by the many where his straining fails to convey the typical drama of Royal Hunt's music. Further, with his trademark power largely absent from the proceedings, you're left to dwell on the unwelcome elements of Cooper's delivery. Between the nasal tonality and lack of fullness, he sounds like he has a cold or something. Man. Aspiring powerprog singers, seriously, don't smoke. Like, really. It'll catch up with you.

Andersen's production of the vocals seems aware of Cooper's faults, trying desperately to manage them but compounding the problem further. The vocals recede randomly into the background at times, and many of the high sections have significant pitch correction on them. This is particularly egregious on the bridge of "Won't Trust, Won't Fear, Won't Beg," where what should be a dramatic, climactic buildup turns into digitized vocal nonsense. The final high note of "One Minute Left To Live" might not be autotuned, but it's one of the worst high notes I've ever heard in music like this.

It's a shame, because the gorgeously-written "A Bullet's Tale" would be a Royal Hunt classic if the singing was any good, and "One Minute Left To Live" should be a very good song as well. Opener "Hell Comes Down From Heaven" suffers from more vocal issues and an overlong intro (a typical Andersen mistake), but boasts a huge guitar solo from Jonas Larsen, and the solid "Won't Trust, Won't Fear, Won't Beg" is ruined by the ridiculous section mentioned above. With the Royal Hunt-by-numbers "Running Out of Tears" also not a winner, that leaves only two songs from this album that really hold much merit. Midtempo track "Sign of Yesterday" asks the least from Cooper out of all the songs here, letting its musical merits come through, and the closing title track is basically a rewrite of the band's concert closer "Epilogue," riding along on some bouncy Larsen riffs and having a dramatic coda at the end. It also has probably the best vocals on the album, including the one good high passage.

Two pretty good songs and some isolated good sections elsewhere does not a good album make, though. Frankly, this album is better-written than its predecessor, and it should have thus been the superior disc, but the consistently problematic vocals undermine it at nearly every turn. It's remarkable that Andersen has continued to stick with Cooper since, in light of these issues. Followup Devil's Dozen is marginally better. Regardless, A Life To Die For is when the two-decade run of consistently strong Royal Hunt music came to its end.