War Of Kings
March 6, 2015
War Of Kings might just be Europe's best record yet. The songs are top notch, the playing is as good as it's ever been, Joey Tempest is ever growing as a vocalist, and super producer Dave Cobb has gotten not just the band's best performances to date, but also their best sound ever.
The story of Europe is one of a slow steady rebuild - after a long (ten year) hiatus, the band reconvened in 2003, and since they have been slowly and steadily reinventing their legacy. War Of Kings is the latest chapter, and it sees the band continuing to re-channel the history of British and European hard rock in a modern contemporary fashion. Sometimes I believe that the world looks towards change for change's sake, but I often find that things turn out better when an artist simply refines and hones their strongpoints, and this is a method that has worked wonderfully for Europe. They get better with every record, and the tours get bigger and better.
Europe is regularly making some of the best hard rock on the planet, haven't you noticed? Now they've went and hired one of my absolute favorite record producers on the planet, Dave Cobb, to assist them in their vision, and as soon as you hear the title track kick off the album, you'll know it was money well spent. 'War Of Kings' is one of the strongest rockers the band has ever written, and from the fat backbeat to the unison riffing to Joey Tempest's confident wail, this is some powerful, powerful stuff. Cobb combines heaviness, melody, and some patented atmospherics into the mix, and the die is cast. Every performance on this track is stellar, but check out them drums - Bonham big and bold, yet sophisticated and swinging.
You can severely hear Cobb's influence kick in on track two, 'Hole In My Pocket' and he's twisted John Norum's opening notes into a wicked riff of pure rock fury, then you get the band thrusting the throttle down fully as Joey Tempest throws down one of the most compelling set of verses of his long and glorious career. In terms of original rock 'n' roll, Europe has transcended their contemporaries, and come head to head with their founding fathers.
Things really shift gears with track three - 'The Second Day' features a steadily percolating bass line and an electric piano that usher in Tempest's first verse, then the guitars and big drums join in, and the tune's slow pace slowly increases as it crosses over from a somewhat Zep-ish mid-eastern twist into a more melodic radio ready chorus. This is a great example of how the band has matured into very masterful composer and arrangers. John Norum uncorks a great solo, and then things slow down again before exploding into the song's climax. Ian Haugland has long been one of the most underrated drummers in rock, and his playing on this album is superb across the board.
Things stay relaxed and simmering with the bluesy intro to 'Praise You', a song that will thrill anyone who ever loved the slow blues via Whitesnake or Gary Moore. Just enough rock to keep it from ever getting near the horror that is 90% of all blues rock, this has melody and muscle galore without ever sinking to boredom, redundancy, or dull repetition. Mic Michaeli's always excellent keyboard playing drives this along, and Haugland is again superb. Norum's solos are subtle and understated, but packed with emotion and melody. It all makes me miss John Sykes presence in the rock world just a little less. Tempest is perfect in his delivery, and I couldn't be more leased.
'Nothing To Ya' is another epic scaled bluesy bash that's heavy as hell, and again filled with the expected melodicism. Cobb has done a great job of getting some delightful performances out of Norum and Michaeli when they double up to lay down what goes on during the verses, and the guitar solo explodes off the disc only to be replaced by some fabulous keyboards that make for a great interlude before the songs backside, which just builds and builds to a sudden stop.
The keyboards are playing a very vital role on this album as they always have in Europe's soundscapes, but the tones seem better, and hey better placed in the mix than the last time out. 'California 405' is a mid-tempo pounder that is filled with great organ work, nice fatback bass, and Norum's chunky fills and touches - the guitars are never overdone so their place is even more special in the mixes. When Norum gets to his solos, it always sounds just like what you've been waiting for, and this is a brilliant marriage of chops, tunes, and great production. Somewhere along the line Europe has slipped past such stalwarts as UFO, Schenker, Whitesnake, Deep Purple, and other bands they once looked to for inspiration, and surpassed them in excitement, freshness, and totality of their presentation. I don't say that casually at all, but I think it true.
'Days Of Rock n Roll' is a great tale of a band who is stepping up boldly to take their place in history. It tells the tale of being left on the junk pile only to arise once again like a phoenix. Their use of dynamics shows their experience and maturity, but the sharpness of the galloping riff rocks as well as anything coming down the highway. Great stuff.
Cobb's love of bold effects makes its presence felt on the intro and riff that announces 'Children Of The Mind', and somewhere out there, Ronnie Dio is smiling from ear to ear. The band and their producer have done an amazing job of keeping things heavy without ever getting muddy, and infusing melody in doses that always balance nicely with the heaviness. The tones Norum pulls out of his hat on this one are glorious, and then they get sideswiped by some of the juiciest synth riffing I've heard in decades. Did I mention that Ian Haugland might be the best drummer in hard rock?
Middle Eastern bluster blows in from across the seas on 'Rainbow Bridge', and Tempest weaves his tale nicely across the thick tapestry of sounds that the band lays down before him. Dave Cobb has done a fabulous job of bringing out the very best in John Norum's guitar work. He's always been a great player, but in the context of this album it somehow has become even more special.
'Angels (With Broken Hearts)' is a slow burner that contains an abundance of feel and emotion. This is Joey Tempest at his very best, and it's all in the details as he holds notes, let's his voice go a bit ragged in some parts, and he builds the dynamic range nicely as the tune goes passing by. Beautiful blues rock, this. Michaeli's organ work is sublime on this track.
Things get back to rock with 'Light Me Up', and again producer and band have combined to concoct a dish that is smooth and sophisticated, while maintaining the rock. This tune has a low end swagger that is seldom heard on records that don't involve Billy Sheehan. Haugland's fills astound, and everyone is putting in the perfect amount of their ingredients that combine to move this down the road at the perfect clip. Then at the 3:45 mark, John Norum lays down the best solo of his life, and it just keeps going, and going, and it makes me think that he'd have been the perfect guitar player to replace Schenker in UFO. This solo would have fit perfectly on the first MSG record, one of the best hard rock guitar albums in history, and this stands right next to it.
The album rides off into the sunset with the gorgeous instrumental, 'Vasatan', in which things end in a recapitulation of the album's title track.
Is this Europe's finest moment? That's a tough one - the band has had a lot of great moments over their long career, but I will definitely say that this is as strong a statement as they have ever made as a band, and there are not a lot of groups that can say that thirty years into their history. War Of Kings should make a lot of year end top tens, and it should play out wonderfully onstage.