When I was a teenager, one of my favorite albums was DragonForce’s Inhuman Rampage. Cheesy and criminally overproduced as it was, I thought it was too cool for school. But since that point in my life, I’ve acquired a more stringent set of standards for my power metal sweet tooth. As a result, my collection of favorites dwindled to but a select few (like Sunburst, Theocracy, Triosphere, Gloryhammer, and Unleash the Archers) and my tolerance for lactose rapidly plummeted. Vandor—a five-piece founded by brothers two in Gothenberg, Sweden—here put forth their bid for a spot on my power metal rotation with their self-released debut In the Land of Vandor. Does it live up to my increasingly strict parameters?
Let me begin by saying In the Land of Vandor is nothing like Inhuman Rampage. Where the latter blisters too rapidly for the musicians to play it properly live, the former restrains itself to the skill level of the band members. Where DragonForce sounded hypermodern and artificial, Vandor sound traditional and organic. To top things off, DragonForce are all about the wank, substance be damned. Vandor instead put substance first and dedicate every effort towards an emotional and compelling performance. This is power metal as it should be: fun, engaging, fantastical, and pure.
The next big point I need to make about Vandor’s debut is that it. Sounds. Fantastic. Jason Carter deserves a huge shoutout for his mix and master on In the Land of Vandor. Every instrument blooms with life and color. Alve Bjerde’s bass in particular is pure bliss, every note plucked with clarity and depth. Robin Risander’s and August Svärdström’s drums pound harder than a dragon’s heart in battle. Vocals courtesy of Vide Bjerde, Alve Bjerde, Jack L. Stroem, Uno Rosengren, and guest Anja Hedenskog all pierce through without overpowering the band. Vide’s and Jack’s guitars inject so much character into the music that it’s difficult to resist playing along with your favorite imaginary axe. While Uno’s synth and piano aren’t main attractions, Carter gave them plenty of breathing room when they do have some time in the limelight.
Thankfully, these 11 tracks are also well-written for the most part. Of particular note is the near-14-minute epic “Uncover the Earth,” which shows Vandor flexing their more progressive muscles to create an adventure through landscapes of prog-power riffing, emotive choruses and softer acoustic bridges with folksy female vocals. Other highlights include “Wrath of the Night,” “Possessive Eyes,” (both the song proper and the acoustic rendition at the very end) and “The Land of Vandor.” All three of these songs are earnest dalliances through the fantasy world Vandor have endeavored to exhibit with unexpectedly infectious verses and entertaining riffs and solos.
Only the underwhelming vocals and oddly undercooked choruses in the first half hold In the Land of Vandor back from power metal supremacy. With the exceptions of “Wrath of the Night” and “Possessive Eyes,” all of the tracks leading up to “Uncover the Earth” suffer from choruses that feel somewhat forced. The songs in question recover quickly when the choruses pass, but all the same I wonder what interfered with the band’s songwriting chops in those crucial moments. Vocals don’t always do the choruses in these examples many favors either. I appreciate the band steering away from pitch-correcting software and vocal-enhancing tools but the lead vocals come across as reedy, and the highest notes feel strained.
Vandor burst forth into the power metal scene with ambition, drive and passion and it shows. In the Land of Vandor is a treat, and it grows more endearing with each listen. If they can reign in the vocals and put a little more tender loving care into the chorus-work on a more consistent basis, Vandor will no doubt garner my unwavering adoration on a sophomore record. Hell, they’ve already earned high marks by virtue of their unfuckwithable production values alone. And in spite of the album’s flaws, I keep coming back to it with a big dumb smile on my face. That’s gotta count for something, right?