In the vanguard of the retro rock/metal movement are High Spirits, Gygax, Audrey Horne, and Night Flight Orchestra: bands that wear their influences not only on their sleeves, but on their entire bodies. They pay loving homage to the sounds of the 70s and 80s, but their songwriting prowess sets them apart from the crowd. Rather than making a mockery of Thin Lizzy or Toto, they revel in the sound and chart their own path forward – either in earnestness or in ultimate cheese. Sweden’s Hypnos aim to join this exalted group with their third album, Set Fire to the Sky, but can they write songs worthy of acceptance in this hallowed clique?
Upon pressing play, a sense of familiarity wafts over me. And sure enough, a bit of research reveals that vocalist Linus Johansson also sang (sings?) for Trial, the band whose 2017 album I was not overly fond of primarily because of awful vocals. On Set Fire to the Sky, Linus’s work is not nearly as offensive, but I have a hard time finding anything truly redeeming about his performance beyond his high level of enthusiasm. He’s not interested in the technical aspects of what makes a good vocalist. Thankfully, the band almost saves these songs with their performances, particularly guitarists Pontus Isebring and Oscar Wersäll, who bring a tasty twin guitar attack to the proceedings, at times sounding like early Iron Maiden, at others Thin Lizzy, and always dropping catchy solos throughout. The rhythm section plays a loose, rollicking style that anchors the garage-band feel of these songs.
“Get Out” kicks things off in promising fashion, with a riff that could have been pulled straight from Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow. It’s a killer song marred by Johansson’s sketchy vocals. “Ain’t No Fool” brings a similar feel, a bit more Thin Lizzy-ish and with a killer guitar solo, but again with the poor singing, and some inexplicable piano keys tinkling randomly during the second verse, then never again. “Set Fire to the Sky” is pure Thin Lizzy, like Gygax with bad singing, and “Looking Out” is pure balls-out fury. These are the songs where Hypnos come closest to delivering the goods: up-tempo rockers with great guitar work, kind of sloppily played, but with a ton of unbridled enthusiasm. The album was written in the span of a couple months, and recorded in less than two weeks, and that unpolished verve shows up throughout for better or worse.
If Hypnos could take their songwriting and singing up a notch there could be some great moments here, but no, too often we get material like the eight-minute “Deadline,” with an awkward arrangement that makes it seem like two completely different songs, and “Tell Me Goodbye,” a mid-paced, somewhat jazzy, number that goes on way too long. The oddest song is the spaghetti western “Time is Running Out,” with a vibe reminiscent of any low-budget movie, whispered vocals and cheesy “whoo-ahh’s” throughout. Luckily, time runs out for this song rather quickly and we move back into more metallic fare.
With the glut of retro acts assaulting our senses these days, the only way to stand out is to write great songs and perform them even better. While Hypnos bring plenty of will and enthusiasm to Set Fire to the Sky, they are ultimately undone by both of these tenets. They’ve got the musical chops, but their songwriting doesn’t keep pace, nor do the rough around the edges (and in the middle) vocals of Johansson, thus leaving the upper reaches of retro royalty sadly out of reach. Hypnos have delivered a messy, charming album that doesn’t have the staying power of releases from their contemporaries.