As their career has worn on, Stockholm-based Grand Magus have morphed from a relatively standard old-school doom metal outfit steeped in the aesthetics and lyrical themes of Norse mythology into a leaner, meaner beast that combines aspects of NWOBHM, traditional heavy metal, and some slivers of speed metal. Their core sound, however, has remained intact, always reliant upon the rhythmic power and memorability of their guitar work, battle-bred lyrics, and the compelling delivery of the vocals. Their latest, Sword Songs, changes little of what they’ve established on the past few albums; it’s a fun, accessible set of war hymns, but it reaches back into some of the band’s earlier doom roots to make it even more infectious.
Sword Songs runs the gamut of all things burly and brutish, from the near-stoner, pentatonic riffing of “Born for Battle” and the uptempo Powerslave homage of “Last One to Fall” to the more straightforward doom lumbering of “Every Day There’s a Battle to Fight,” which culminates in a “get out there and do it” chorus. Opener “Freja’s Choice” erupts with hot-rodded mid-paced stomp and a strong chorus before transitioning to a fiery guitar harmony and lead section in its latter half, setting the bar high for the album’s remainder. As a whole, Grand Magus’s cocktail of their traditionally doom-laden approach and more muscular, Manowar-esque bravado and drama works very effectively, and with the album barely over 30 minutes, it’s easily repeatable and replayable, though there is the sneaking desire that maybe two more songs would have capped Sword Songs off wonderfully. There’s enough variety in terms of melody and pacing that each song is distinct, and if there’s one thing Grand Magus have improved on over time, it’s their ability to craft infectious, memorable choruses, and at this point in their career, they’re also gleefully self-aware of the bombast and testosterone overload inherent in the type of metal they play.
That said, there are a few moments where the corn factor takes it from anthemic, chest-pounding glory-riding-into-battle to LARPing with some local high schoolers in the city park in broad daylight. “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel,” though blissfully aware of how much cheese it’s pushing through the speakers, goes down a notch as its ascending pre-chorus crests in “VIKING METAL / Bring you to your knees! / VIKING METAL / The warrior’s decree!”, and the preceding “Varangian,” though aiming for arena levels of ambition, comes off more like a bar band covering Manowar during its chorus. For those who are into Odin-and-war-and-glory spectrum of metal, this will be no surprise, and even those who have followed Grand Magus over the course of their career will be in for no surprises either when in it comes to the bombast of Sword Songs. Those unversed in the glory-riding and sword-wielding niche of metal, though… well… go listen to some Manowar to get your toes wet, then get back to me.
No doubt, Grand Magus are very aware of the cornball factor in this niche of metal, and while some parts are hokey, that’s part of the charm of Sword Songs; Grand Magus are still exceptional songwriters in their own right, and that alone is what makes it such an easy album to get into. The fact that they can a deceptively simple –– elementary, even –– songwriting formula and have the delivery, riffs, and skill to make these songs so addictive and distinct is a feat for any band, but most certainly in the niche of stubbornly old-school epic metal, in which originality and memorability come at a premium.
Sword Songs boasts a polished but not neutered mix that puts JB Cristoffersson’s vocals at the forefront (a wise choice, as he’s a great vocalist), but the guitars don’t lack any weight and the low end is tight, with the tom-tom tone and crack of the snare especially fantastic. It still has some retro grit to it, though, and the loose, live feel only complements the adrenaline that courses through the veins of the songs, both individually and collectively. The acoustic sections are clean, bright, and mixed wonderfully to mesh with the rest of the sound.
In one way, Sword Songs doesn’t introduce any major changes to Grand Magus’s sound, but the fact that they’ve reached back into their earlier doom days works wonderfully here. They’re still bent on creating simple, memorable heavy metal, and even if the old adage is true of old dogs learning new tricks, who cares? (Especially when one can ride said old hound into battle and ascend to Valhalla.)