Artist: Universal Mind Project
Album Title: The Jaguar Priest
Label: Inner Wound Recordings
Date Of Release: 29 April 2016
It is one thing to be impressed by an album from a band that you’re familiar with but one of the best feelings when reviewing music is being absolutely bowled over by a band that you knew nothing about prior to being invited to check out the promo. And this is exactly the feeling I have got from Universal Mind Project and their debut album, ‘The Jaguar Priest’. Mind you, given the clientele involved, I’m at a loss to understand why I hadn’t got this release firmly on my radar earlier.
Universal Mind Project was conceived by guitarist Michael Alexander and began life in 2012. Since then, Alexander has managed to pull together an impressive group of musicians which form the nucleus of Universal Mind Project and transform it from a project to a fully-fledged band. Joining Alexander are vocalists Henrik Bath (Darkwater) and Elina Laivera as well as drummer Alex Landenburg (Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody).
The list of guest musicians that join this core quartet is quite something too and includes Nils K Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Johan Reinholz (Andromeda), Mark Jansen (Epica, Mayan), Charlie Dominici (ex-Dream Theater), Emanuele Casali (DGM) and Diego Valdez (Helker). Is your mouth watering? It ought to be. But, as we all know, all the famous names in the world cannot guarantee a quality finished product if the music itself is not up to the requisite standard. In the case of Universal Mind Project however, it is clear before the opening track finishes that this will not be a problem and that this is an album to be reckoned with.
It is actually quite difficult to describe the musical output of Universal Mind Project succinctly because it features so many different elements. It is progressive, powerful, symphonic and highly melodic, almost veering into mainstream music territory on more than one occasion. There are dual male and female vocals plus a fair few extreme metal growls as well as demonstrably heavier moments that arguably belong more to the more extreme genres of metal than to anything else.
If you’re thinking that this all sound like it could result in a messy album, I agree; on paper, it shouldn’t really work. And yet it does. Moreover, it works really, really well, much to the credit of Alexander and Laivera, the primary song writers on this album.
Kicking things off is the prog-tinged power metal-meets-melodic hard rock swagger of ‘Anthem For Freedom’. It is dominated by tinkling keys and rich synths courtesy of DGM’s Casali as well as the duel vocals of Bath and Laivera who are both really suited to each other and to the surrounding composition. It’s a highly melodic affair with a really catchy chorus but it also has a heavier edge thanks to the injection of a few gruff vocals later in the piece.
‘Truth’ follows and is, if anything even better. The opening keyboard melody is brilliant, underpinned by the rumbling bass of Mike LePond but is soon replaced by a verse that features more gruff vocals and a stop-start chugging rhythm guitar riff. The chorus, almost at odds to the aggressive verse is magical, led by a return of the opening synth melody and some angelic, soaring vocals from Laivera. If you enjoy hook-laden choruses, this is like manna from heaven.
But just when you think that things can’t continue at such a high level, you’re proved wrong time and again. ‘The Bargain Of Lost Souls’ features Nils K. Rue of Pagan’s Mind on lead vocals and, as such, there are big parallels to the vocalist’s day job. Meaty chugging riffs, energetic lead duels between the keyboards and guitars, as well as another anthemic chorus dominate a track that’s darker in tone and markedly more progressive than the opening two songs.
‘Dreamstate’ on the other hand begins in commanding fashion with more heavy riffing and plenty of Mark Jansen’s growled vocals. But then, out of nowhere comes a chorus so smooth and catchy that it is almost AOR-like. It is a surprising and clever juxtaposition that gives the entire track more depth, character and drama than it would otherwise have.
I must admit that I’m unaware of Diego Valdez and his principal band Helker but he gives a great performance on ‘Awakened By The Light (Universal Mind)’, full of passion and power. It is a slightly longer track and one of the more progressive in terms of its construction and numerous different segments. Nevertheless, hooks and melodies are never far away and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it features a hugely memorable chorus of sorts that gets lodged in your head immediately.
‘A World That Burns’ is principally a piano and vocal track that is heartbreakingly beautiful. It is an elegant and sensitive composition that allows Laivera to really showcase her considerable skills. So strong is her performance and the accompanying melodies that what would normally be a skip-over track is essential and majestic.
For the sake of brevity, I will reluctantly cease my track-by-track narrative and instead just mention the title track. It is the longest composition on the record and also the most overtly progressive. It begins with a spoken word intro before encompassing just about everything that’s so great about this album into one epic track; atmosphere, clever riffs, copious keyboard and guitar leads, fantastic vocals including a guest appearance from Charlie Dominici and, dare I say it, more hook-laden and cheesy grin-inducing melodies that are addictive and lead to frequent repeated listens.
Enhanced by a lyrical content that generally avoids genre clichés, striking cover artwork and a hugely impressive production courtesy of Simone Mularoni (Vision Divine, DGM) at Domination Studios, Universal Mind Project have delivered the full package. Remarkably consistent, hugely engaging and expertly crafted, it has come out of nowhere to blow me away. As such, ‘The Jaguar Priest’ has ‘end of year top 10’ written all over it. Superb.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld