Royal Hunt has been knocking around the prog-metal circuit forever, and though they’ve dropped a few killer releases, I’d describe their overall discography as a bit spotty. There are those classic albums where their melodic AOR/metal style really hit a sweet spot, and others were it feels like they’re stuck in a lower gear. Their golden age was in the mid 90s with vocalist extraordinaire, D.C. Cooper (Silent Force, Steel Seal) and most fans would likely point to 1997s Paradox as their crowning achievement. After Cooper left, they got by with good but less dynamic singers (John West, Mark Boals), but the magic of their salad days was never recaptured. Cooper returned to the fold in 2011 and things improved immediately, and that brings us to XIII Devil’s Dozen, their thirteenth album. Three albums into Cooper’s return and they’ve definitely rediscovered that elusive sweet spot. Cooper gives one of his best performances and the writing drips with melody and writhes with hooks. I guess thirteen isn’t always an unlucky number.
The opening strains of “So Right So Wrong” show Royal Hunt have lost none of their taste for excess, with pompous orchestration sitting alongside the rock/metal riffs. When Cooper joins the fray, it sounds like a trip back to 97 and things immediately adopt a very Paradox-centric approach – layered as bejezzus but extremely catchy and anthemic, and when the big chorus drops, you almost have to find a mirror and do your best overly dramatic rock star impression. Cooper sounds amazing and his voice might even be richer and more nuanced than it was in the 90s.
The high point comes early with “May You Never (Walk Alone)” which is the quintessential Royal Hunt song; bombastic, bigger-than-life and so catchy it hurts. It begins with the excellent line “I have been stuck behind this wobbling desk for hours now,” which anyone who ever worked in an office can relate to, and things just get better from there. There’s a real power and urgency to the song, with ripping guitar and keyboard exchanges and Cooper’s powerful vocals blasting right through the middle of it all. It’s heavy enough to fit his work with Silent Force and definitely shows why he was a finalist to replace Rob Halford in Judas Priest before they went with Ripper (AMG screed to follow).
While the album definitely reaches it’s zenith early, the rest of the songs are almost as good with the band safely in their comfort zone and writing their best material in years. “Heart on a Platter” rocks a slightly jazzy swing before the orchestral arrangements and symphonic gobbly-gook arrive. “Tears in the Rain” has an unbearable cheesy title but the song itself is great, with Cooper doing duets with Alexandra Popova (Eclipse Hunter) for extra pop and sizzle. “Until the Day” is as dramatic as a power ballad can get without being on Broadway, but you’ll still find yourself singing it as you mow the lawn and clean the gutters (mind the jazz hands or you might fall).
There isn’t an off moment here, and even though the songs are mostly six to seven minutes, they never feel overlong or bloated. They actually seem to zip by too fast and demand immediate replay. The only problem is the production, which is surprisingly brickwalled and compressed for a band this technical and classically influenced. With their propensity to thickly layer the songs, this ends up creating a dense wall of sound more appropriate for a Sabaton album and I wish they’d opted for a richer, more dynamic mix.
What impresses me most is the balance between instrumental wankery and deft, irresistibly catchy writing. Founder and sole original member, keyboardist Andre Anderson never misses a chance to fling the keys with gusto, and his frequent duels with guitarist Jonas Larson are always inspired lunacy (especially during “May You Never”). Luckily, they never interfere with the ebb and flow of the songs or cause the album to feel bogged down in one-upmanship (technically known as “Dream Theater-ism“). D.C. Cooper is the essential ingredient to the Royal Hunt stew, and he sounds positively amazing here. His broad range and powerful delivery elevate the high-level writing and give the songs an extra punch few other singers could. He’s one of the most versatile vocalists in all of metal and it feels like this is where he’s at his best.
There’s more polish here than on any ten investment banker’s wingtips, but when the songs are this entertaining and memorable, you can excuse the absence of grit and grime. Everything seemed to come together for them with this particular batch of tunes and it isn’t a stretch to say this is as close to Paradox as they’ve ever gotten. I’d recommend Devil’s Dozen to anyone, but especially those who like prog-metal that puts the songs ahead of technical masturbation. Royal Hunt is back, baby!