Ever since the mighty ‘Iron Will’ appeared and wrapped metalheads the world over up in a feverish world of leather and steel, Grand Magus have remained a consistently impressive act. The trio of JB, Ludwig and Fox remain as impervious as ever to the fripperies of fashion on this, their eight album is something of a celebration of the band’s glorious career to date. Summating the band’s fifteen year history far better than any bland best of, ‘Sword songs’ is Grand Magus plugging in and simply doing what they do best, and with its epic artwork, this truly is an album best appreciated on vinyl (and vinyl is something that Nuclear Blast do phenomenally well). Mixed by Robert Laghi and mastered by Svante Forsback, this really is a beautiful sounding record, and the vinyl (rock solid 180 gm) is a near-perfect, crackle-free pressing that excels with its hefty low-end punch and raging highs.
From the moment opening track ‘Freja’s choice’ kicks into gear, there’s a certain something apparent immediately sets this record apart from prevous outing ‘triumph and power’. It’s not that Grand Magus are doing anything particularly differently, it’s rather that they appear to have approached this recording with the deranged battle fever of a berserker with his bloodlust and as harmonized guitars pile up against king-sized riffs, it’s hard to contain one’s glee. Not so much trad-metal as trad-Grand Magus, ‘Varangian’ is a fine song, although it lacks the fire and fury of the opening track and cuts as close as possible to being what might be called a typical Grand Magus anthem, although when the guitars cut away to leave JBs huge bellow naked in front of a towering mountain of percussion, the effect is nothing short of inflammatory. Wrong-footing the listener beautifully, ‘Forged in iron – crowned in steel’ sees the band introduce the song with gentle picking only to tear off on a ferocious rampage just as the listener settles back to a gentle ballad. With a chorus of ‘Viking metal, bring you to your knees’, Grand Magus’s surprise attack is akin to waking into the opera only to be hit square between the eyes by Judas Priest and it flat out rules. A varied song that features a career-best performance from JB, ‘forged in iron…’ is a metal epic and one that you’ll be dragging your mates over to listen to, such is its power. Grand Magus get their groove on with the crushing ‘Born for battle’, a glorious metal anthem that gets the blood racing with its massed-vocal chorus and addictive, deceptively simple melody. The first side of the album concludes with ‘master of the land’, a bloodthirsty rampage that draws liberally from Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and even Queen (check out the epic solo) to deliver a powerful blast of broad-chested metal that is as addictive as it is heavy.
The second side opens with the hammer-blow of Ludwig’s drums introducing the Maiden-esque thrill-ride of ‘last one to fall’, a track that features an epic chorus worthy of the hall of a Viking warlord and riffs hewn from the purest steel, whilst a sudden shift in tempo leads to chills running down the spine. ‘Frost and fire’ kicks off as a fairly straight forward romp only for JBs histrionic soloing to elevate it a notch whilst the instrumental ‘Hugr’ proves to be surprisingly atmospheric, subtle piece of work, which only goes to make the mid-paced groove of album closer ‘everyday there’s a battle to fight’ sound all the more immense. With a lumbering riff set to Ludwig’s endlessly inventive drumming, it’s a perfect album closer. However, this being the special vinyl edition, there are two bonus tracks still to come. The first of these, ‘in for the kill’ is a typically raucous blast of trad-metal whilst the second, a rabid cover of the Deep Purple classic ‘stormbringer’ sees the band wearing their classic rock influences proudly on their sleeve as they drag the British classic through the Viking mud and blood for a ruddy good kicking.
Grand Magus may not have tampered with their well-worn style on this release, but even so, ‘Sword songs’ still feels somewhat bigger and bolder than their last effort. Perhaps it’s the production, which rings out with a power and authority that previous albums have hinted at but not quite attained, or perhaps it’s the fact that the album, as a whole, feels like Grand Magus have fully (and fatally) distilled their essence to its most potent form yet, but whatever special ingredient the band have sprinkled into the mix, it works. Fans and newcomers alike will find plenty to admire in ‘Sword songs’ and it’s safe to say that those who purchase this album are likely to find themselves playing it over and again so addictive is the band’s bloodthirsty riffing. This is a straight-up, good-time, heavy-goddam-metal album, free from pretention and utterly thrilling, and it’s impossible, if you worship at the altar of heavy, not to get caught up in it.