Nothing lifts ordinary metal music out of the mire like a fine lead singer. American metalcore bands, take note.
As good as the recent wave of American heavy metal has been, a rather troubling thing about it all is the lack of a serious melodic presence among the top acts. Bands like Lamb of God, Mastodon, The Black Dahlia Murder, Darkest Hour, and High on Fire are all taking the genre to new levels of greatness, delivering some of the best, most monolithic sounds we've heard since Dimebag Darrell and Phil Anselmo got along, but one question the old school fans keep asking is, "Where are the vocal melodies?" Sure, there are plenty of intricate, emotive, and at times gorgeous melodies and harmonies being provided by the guitarists, but save for the great Nevermore (who appear to finally be getting their due), the growled hardcore style of lead vocals has completely overtaken the more tuneful bellow of yesteryear. Don't get me wrong, the aforementioned bands are all superb, but when you hear similar acts from overseas showing remarkable proficiency with both the riffs and the vocal melodies, you can't help but wish more young bands would adopt the style Stateside.
Those efficient Swedes know how to do it. Case in point: Grand Magus, a trio of bearded, burly doom metalers, who actually give a damn about the importance of melody. Combining elements of classic Dio (circa 1983-84), Judas Priest, and Candlemass, the band are throwbacks, no question, but like the best doom/stoner bands, they perform with enough fervor to make even the most ordinary song arrangements sound exciting. They really shouldn't be as good as they are; the guitar work of J.B. is, when you focus on it, quite unspectacular, his riffs recycling the simpler elements of Priest's Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, and the rhythm section of bassist Fox and drummer Frederik is as ordinary as it gets. However, what this band has is a killer lead vocalist in the form of the aforementioned J.B., as he possesses a powerful baritone voice that sounds like a combination of Candlemass singer Messiah Marcolin, the underrated (and brief Iron Maiden fill-in) Blaze Bayley, and the Jim Morrison-worshiping Jeff Martin of The Tea Party. It's a voice any '80s metal band would have killed for, and he puts it to good use on their second full-length album, Wolf's Return.
All three ingredients, the rudimentary riffs, the pedestrian rhythms, and the spectacular singing gel together perfectly on the formidable opening cut, "Kingslayer". A mammoth of a fist-pumper, the song hearkens back to the glory days of the 6/8 power metal gallop, as Grand Magus takes off at an Iron Maidenesque clip, J.B. sounding downright Dickensonian as he howls theatrically, "Your blood is feeble, a falling line of heirs/ Down you go." The trio let the simple riffs and the vocal melody carry the song, never taking it over the top, sounding remarkably restrained throughout. They just sit in that groove, set the cruise control, and head off at breakneck speed.
"Nine", on the other hand, is quintessential doom metal; following the template set by Candlemass, it centers around a huge, ominous lead riff, allowing the lead vocals to swirl about the monolithic chords gracefully. "Wolf's Return" marches at a stately gait before slipping into a dense doom coma, while "Blood Oath" dares to match the more upbeat style of power metal, anchored once again by J.B.'s forceful, convincing singing. "Ashes" stomps with a Sabbathlike swagger (think Born Again), augmented very nicely by an acoustic folk interlude, a la Amorphis, and the understated epic "Light Hater" sounds like it would have been a nice fit on Sabbath's Heaven and Hell album.
Four of the album's 11 tracks are brief instrumentals, complementing the rest of the songs nicely. Such a display of economy was a good move, as the 38-minute album holds our attention throughout, not for a moment sounding tedious not self-indulgent. It's a workmanlike album, but one with enough good taste to make it a highly rewarding disc. As Grand Magus dare to buck the trend of tuneless lead vocals, they prove that having a good lead singer in a metal band can still go a long, long way.