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Melodic excellence - 93%

GOOFAM, July 3rd, 2016

Royal Hunt has always been a band marked by consistency. They have a single songwriter, and despite an ever-rotating cast of musicians surrounding him over a 25-year span, that songwriter's trademark sound has always remained consistent and easily recognizable. Given the inherent challenges in coming up with album after album of quality material, not to mention the vagaries of the personnel on hand, not every one of the Andre Andersen-led group's thirteen albums has held up equally, but only a few show sizeable deviations in stylistic approach, quality control, production, inspiration, and/or execution.

I thus find it at least somewhat intriguing that it is largely agreed that Royal Hunt is a band with a clear high-water mark--1997's Paradox, and perhaps more generally, their mid-1990s run with D.C. Cooper on vocals, Jacob Kjaer on guitar, Steen Mogensen on bass, Kenneth Olsen on drums, and of course Andersen on keyboards. For a band in which so little has changed, it is somewhat surprising that such a consensus exists on when they were at their strongest.

Mind you, I don't necessarily disagree, even if I find myself less enraptured by Cooper than many of his devotees. And perhaps a wider examination of the Royal Hunt timeline lends some context to why that period stands out--they made a large jump from 1993's Clown in the Mirror (with original singer Henrik Brockmann) to 1996's Moving Target with Cooper, and experienced a similar fall after Cooper's post-Paradox firing when they put out 1999's Fear with replacement John West. Maybe, then, it is simply a case of bad timing that fans often write off the post-Paradox Hunt as devoid of their original magic.

Regardless of the underlying reasons that the West (and later Mark Boals) eras of the band tend to get lumped into this less desirable bin, they have the unfortunate side effect of causing The Mission (and some other later releases) to be fairly significantly overlooked. Like Paradox, it is an ambitious concept work that delivers with incredible consistency.

One of the things I really like about Royal Hunt's approach to concept albums in general (and they have several) is that there is never a sense of being encumbered by the concept. Here, the lyrics are inspired by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and while I have never read that work, it seems that the basis is fairly loose. And really, like so much of power metal lyricism, the lyrics here mostly just need to sit on top of the music and sound good, which they do. There is a vague sense of storytelling in the songs, but not all that much more than typical power metal fantasy fare. So the only real "concept" effect one gets here is that most of the songs connect with each other in a way not dissimilar from the second disc of Dream Theater's Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. It's a neat effect if you can pull it off well, which Royal Hunt does here, serving to add a sense of cohesion to the album and making it feel more substantive than its number of songs (seven if you discard the interludes) might have you believe.

Given that I've mentioned the sonic consistency of the band several times already, it does bear noting that The Mission does have somewhat unique sonics among the band's releases. There was no official drummer in the band at this point, and though there are session credits for drums on the album, I'm not convinced there are any real drums here. It's either a drum machine, electronic drums, or drums processed to oblivion. Mind you, with a science fiction theme, it's less heretical and fits better than it would on any other Royal Hunt release, working especially well on "World Wide War" given the lyrical content. Jacob Kjaer's rhythm guitar and some of Andersen's keys have a sort of processed, mechanical feel to them at times, which accommodates the drum sound well. The opening of the title track, where the instruments join the drums one by one, serves as a nice introduction that allows the listener to acclimate to the sonic textures to come.

Of course, what matters most here is that, save for Paradox, Andersen never came up with a stronger set of songs. "The Mission" sets the tone immediately, with some expertly-written tradeoff vocals between West's lead and the backing vocalists on top of some punchy riffing from Kjaer. "Judgment Day" is a multi-section slow-burn semi-ballad with a bouncy chorus groove. "World Wide War" might have the best chorus in the band's discography, and "Out of Reach" is another incredible example of well-constructed vocal lines. And as well-written as the vocals are throughout, West delivers on every bit of them, lending a soaring, crystalline grace to the songs while also occasionally cutting a slightly icy presence when needed. It's easy to forget, given his subsequent vocal output, that prior to this album, West was mostly known as an undisciplined bluesy siren who would occasionally ascend into the stratosphere. On Fear, he offered a preview of the smoother, precise style we see here, but it wasn't used to anywhere near the same reward as on this album--perhaps Andersen needed a trial run before figuring out how to optimally write for his new vocalist. Given that Andersen's songs have always called for precise execution in the vocal department, this incarnation of West ultimately proved to be the ideal fit for such aims.

So, ultimately, this album gives you four classic, top-tier neoclassical power metal songs and three other good ones, along with some nice interludes (the atmospheric guitar work from Kjaer in "Dreamline" stands out in particular). It is also one of the easiest and most compelling start-to-finish listens I've run across--there's nothing on the album that merits skipping. Perhaps the closing duo of power ballad "Days of No Trust" and the careening "Total Recall" are a bit of a letdown after the exhilarating ride prior to them, but they're still quite enjoyable. While Paradox is ever-so-slightly more well-paced and consistent and comes with more traditional sonics, The Mission is also a high achievement that just about matches it. This album is definitely a mandatory listen for anyone into neoclassical or melodic power metal.

Under Rated - 95%

ALF, July 9th, 2003

The “Mission” is a concept album based on Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. It's not necessary to have read the novel or to follow the story line of this album to enjoy it. Although at the very least understanding the story does give the music a greater emotional resonance especially on songs that close the CD such as “Days of No Trust” and “Total Recall”.
This CD is very much in the progmetal category. The keyboards are very prominent and played with mastery by Andre Anderson. He makes good use of the keyboards from them being nice and melodic such as in “Judgment Day” to straight out aggressive as in “World Wide War”. The opening to “World Wide War” Anderson plays wonderful classical influence interlude called “Metamorphosis” that is breathtakingly beautiful.
John West’s vocals are simply amazing. The man has great range and power as displayed by the shrieks near the end on “World Wide War”. He also does a terrific job on the slower more emotional songs such as on “Days of No Trust”. Where you can here sadness and melancholy in his vocals that melds perfectly with the lyrics.
Jacob Kjaer on guitar is a perfect compliment to the keyboards. He can rip off riff after furious riff. He can also play remarkably well in harmony with the keyboards as he does in“Surrender”. He is very versatile and has an excellent mastery of technique. He notably shines on “World Wide War” with its heavy riff and on the intro “DreamLine” that leads to the start of “Out Of Reach”. He’s guitar playing on this CD is the reason that this his the heaviest Royal Hunt Cd.
As mentioned earlier “The Mission” is a concept album and as such you have the main songs that advance the story short interludes that serve as links from one song to another. Out of the 13 songs 6 of these are interludes. They range in length from 1:05 to 2:34 but don’t let their brevity fool you there are some very fine moments in them. My two favourites I mentioned already are the beautiful “Metamorphosis” and the guitar oriented “DreamLine”.
This will sound like a cliché and I have used it before but there is not one bad song on this CD. My favorites include the straight-ahead rocker “The Mission”, the intense “World Wide War” and the brilliant vocal lines of “Surrender”.
The Mission is arguably the best Royal Hunt album. Most Royal Hunt fans would give the nod to Paradox but not me. The song writing and performances are top notch .In short this is an essential addition to any fan of progressive metal.