Monday, August 25, 2014

Album Review: Unisonic - Light of Dawn

Album Score: B
Unisonic is a strange sort of reunion. Three of its five members are from Pink Cream 69, three have ties to Helloween, two have played in Krokus and Khymera, two more in Gamma Ray, and the last member in Asia and Gotthard. If that math doesn’t add up, it’s because these guys just seem to end up playing together no matter how many bands they join and leave. Still, singer Michael Kiske and guitarist Kai Hansen are head-and-shoulders above most anyone else in the German metal scene for their work in the aforementioned Helloween and Gamma Ray, and are likewise the focal point of Unisonic. Founded in 2009, the project released its eponymous debut in 2012 to generally positive – and often rave – reviews. Surprisingly, Unisonic’s bassist Dennis Ward emerged as its main songwriter, penning lyrics and/or music for the majority of the debut with occasional contributions from the rest of the band.

Two years later, Ward is even more clearly the creative force behind Light of Dawn, taking full credit for two-thirds of the album. Hansen is nowhere to be found as far as writing, which is perhaps less surprising when considering that his baby Gamma Ray released its first LP in four years this past March. As a result, the overall sound of Light of Dawn is certainly not the power metal fans have come to associate with Unisonic’s celebrity members; for that matter, most of it’s not very metal at all. Things here feel most natural when rolling along at a moderate tempo, as evidenced by early highlights “Exceptional” and “Night of the Long Knives.” Kiske’s admitted aversion to singing metal is apparent in his performance throughout – only a few times does he strive for dramatic high notes, and even then, prominent (but tasteful) vocal overdubbing relegates them to supporting duty. He’s still got some serious pipes (and is almost certainly a better singer than he was in the 80’s with regards to pitch and timbre control), so there’s something to be said for his easygoing approach to much of the album.

Hinge pieces “Blood” and “When the Deed is Done” threaten to kill Light’s first-half momentum with tedious whole-note chords and kick-snare drum patterns, but therein lies a strength of Unisonic as a whole: even at its worst, the band has the effortless chemistry necessary to carry some otherwise-unremarkable songs. Drummer Kosta Zafiriou mostly plays exactly what you expect him to, which is much harder than it sounds when the material ranges from swing-beat ballads to syncopated double-kick grooves. Opening cut “Your Time Has Come” builds easily from mid-paced power-pop to a Sonata Arctica-esque anthem largely on the strength of its rhythm section. Ward, in particular, demonstrates a keen sense of throttle control as his bass lines grow in complexity and power throughout the song. “Exceptional” arrives hot on its heels with a killer four-on-the-floor groove equal parts “Turbo Lover” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”, while Hansen and Mandy Meyer’s juxtaposing Flanger-reverb guitar lines float hazily above. Kiske’s legato high notes fit in almost perfectly, while his lyrics add to the song’s delirious atmosphere.

I ask myself, is it real or just a dream?
Spot lights are shining in my eyes…
Power and eloquence enchanting all
Then I ask myself, has it only just begun?
I can be exceptional, sensational for you
And I could be acceptable, expendable to you
I can be exceptional, invincible for you
But I might be delusional…pretending, all I do.

Those waiting for something darker from Unisonic will likely be disappointed. Even the album’s harder-hitting song such as “For the Kingdom” and “Find Shelter” feature uplifting major-chord choruses, though (almost surprisingly) there’s nothing nauseatingly corny here. Fans of Gamma Ray have probably learned to dread that ballad that Hansen just loves to throw into otherwise rousing albums for no apparent reason, and Ward fares only slightly better with ending track “You and I” (why must lyricists continually use “I” in place of “me” when both are objects in the sentence?). “Manhunter” is another song with obvious but forgivable flaws, as it gets points for some sweet chord progressions but will have you singing Hall and Oates long before you remember the actual lyrics. With that said, Light of Dawn remains a generally cohesive album from start to almost-finish. At fifty-five minutes, there are couple tracks that could probably have been axed for a better overall package, but complaints about Light of Dawn generally remain isolated instances rather than critical flaws.

Unisonic seems to have found a comfortable ground between anthem rock and power metal on its sophomore effort. Whether that’s by happenstance or design, it has worked out excellently for this relatively new project of definitely not-new musicians, as other metal mainstays are increasingly trodden on by fresher acts (looking at you, Judas Priest). Unisonic is a project that probably needed to happen, what with all the Kiske-Hansen collaborations that have cropped up through the years, and the result so far has been a welcome change of pace for all involved. Unisonic is clearly capable of churning out songs with wide-ranging appeal as easily as material that satisfies its members’ longtime fans. Supergroups and reunions have a propensity to wallow in the past, so it’s great to hear Unisonic totally at ease grooving songs like “Exceptional." While the material certainly owes debts to other artists, there is an element of jubilance in the band’s music that is hard to find in projects of this nature. This one will very likely grow on you, so make sure you pick it up if you’re a fan of anyone involved and spin it a number of times.
1. Venite 2.0
2. Your Time Has Come
3. Exceptional
4. For the Kingdom
5. Not Gonna Take Anymore
6. Night of the Long Knives
7. Find Shelter
8. Blood
9. When the Deed is Done
10. Throne of the Dawn
11. Manhunter
12. You and I

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