Originally conceived as a super group-ish side project for Helloween‘s Uli Kusch and Roland Grapow, Masterplan soon became the duo’s main gig after their ignominious firing by those silly Germanic pumpkin rockers. Although they planned to have the Lordly Russell Allen as the singer, they instead released two solid albums of melodic power metal helmed by the mighty Jorn Lande (yes AMG, we know you don’t think he’s that mighty). While Jorn left, then rejoined to record the less than stirring Time to Be King opus, it appears he left yet again, as Novum Initium features the talents of the well-travelled Rick Altzi (ex-At Vance, ex-Thunderstone, Herman Frank). With only Grapow and keyboard wiz Axel Mackenrott returning, Masterplan moves further away from power metal toward a direct, melodic, hard rock influenced sound in the same wheelhouse as Jorn’s solo output and the Allen/Lande albums. With all connections to power metal severed, it’s all about slick, catchy, mid-tempo stuff heavily influenced by Rainbow and White Snake, but just heavy enough to satisfy the metal minded. While they’ve proven themselves capable at this style when they dabbled in it before, Novum Initium is particularly well conceived as it channels the hooks of their Aeronautics album with the heavier and somewhat darker edge of their debut. The result is a satisfying, memorable dose of rocking music that easily blows the doors off the latest Jorn outing despite the absence of the man himself. Altzi steps up and delivers a big performance and the writing is much improved from last time. If you enjoy this kind of vaguely bluesy, hard rocking metal, this will hit the sweet spot and keep hitting it until it’s sore (that sounds dirtier than I intended).
Things get off to a very solid start with the first five numbers being immediate, compelling examples of modern rock/metal. The hooks in “The Game,” “Keep Your Dream Alive,” and “Black Night of Magic” are tough to ignore and all demand replay. The darker mood during “Betrayal” and “No Escape” hits extra hard, as do the choruses. The darker vibe continues on “Pray on My Soul” with good effect, but falters during “Earth is Going Down” which is much less memorable and infectious.
The quality rebounds for the album’s back-end with the emotional, angsty charm of “Through Your Eyes” before culminating in the impressive, epic-length title track, which they manage to keep interesting and memorable over it’s ten-minute run with plenty of top-flight performances, varied moods and clutch writing.
Considering Masterplan is now Grapow’s baby, the music isn’t as guitar-driven as you might expect. The songs all let the vocals do the heavy lifting with the guitar and keys in an often subdued supporting role. While Roland often underplays and goes for a “less is more” restrained approach, even during solos, he does make his presence known with some heartfelt playing during “Through Your Eyes” and he lets himself go off at the right moments during the title track without becoming a raving noodle monster. Mackenrott’s keyboards are used for texture and whether he busts out the Hammond rock or more modern sounds, he mostly stays in the background without overwhelming the rest of the band.
While I admit to being a huge fan of Jorn’s singing abilities, I had a hunch Altzi would be able to fill his shoes because he did so damn well on the last Herman Frank album, which is similar in sound and style. The man has some solid pipes and was born to sing this type of emotive, hard rock-tinged metal. He has just enough edge and rasp to sound convincing, but he also has solid range and power. He makes good vocal choices on most of the songs (especially the choruses) and delivers a standout, professional performance that consistently elevates the material to the next level. Though the songs sound as if they were written specifically for Jorn, he makes them his own and I didn’t miss that mercenary, Dio-obsessed Norwegian at all.
Though I wasn’t particularly anxious to hear this album, it’s quite a pleasant surprise. I like the new-ish direction and I certainly can’t knock the song writing. It also works as a fine companion piece to the last Herman Frank album as well as the recent solo outing by Magnus Karlsson (which also features the ubiquitous Mr. Altzi). While I cannot fathom why Jorn would miss a chance to sing these songs, I guess the man is just a traveller by heart.