Review Summary: A good melodic power metal album with plenty of energy and big ideas that show tremendous growth in songwriting. In light of these positives, though, are glaring missteps that bring down the overall quality of the album.
Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I was pretty disappointed with Grand Illusion. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a good album, but I don’t like it nearly as much as I thought I would, or even wanted to. At the end of the day I’m a bigger fan of earlier material, such as The Sacred Talisman and Shadowland, and sure, comparing this album to Shadowland I can hear some congruence and how Nocturnal Rites arrived at this album, but along the way a couple really bad things happened and one of them is not something a band at this point its career should (still) make.
To get that first offense out of the way, allow me to point out the production. Normally, I find something positive about such a thing - perhaps it emphasizes the tuning of the guitars or the artistic direction of the album - but here nothing logical applies. The production is paper thin; it deflates the music utterly and defeats the purpose of writing catchy songs. The saving grace that would be the bass lines or (since we’re in dire need of a bone) the drumming are in sad states as well, providing hardly anything that could be interpreted as support.
The second irritation, at least for me, is Jonny Lindqvist. Or at least sometimes. I think he’s a genuinely great singer, I really do, but apparently so does he, which is fine but this self awareness should really be turned down because he overdoes his vocal lines in so many cases that if it were a criminal offense he’d be serving life in prison. Seriously, Still Alive, which was really awesome for five or six spins, wore out its welcome real fast because I thought Lindqvist failed to find a happy medium between the music and his voice. He is simply too much of a good thing.
Despite such major drawbacks, Grand Illusion actually clarifies into, well, something very well defined (pun intended). Lindqvist, despite his misgivings, is still a powerful singer who drives songs convincingly and confidently. Songs, for the most part, have formulaic compositions and are comprised of memorable and catchy rhythms and choruses that unfailingly remain in your head for days on end. These are all the tropes and trappings of power metal, aren’t they, and it would be silly not to have them.
It doesn’t take long to find that out either. Fools Never Die is just a great, rockin’ track that reminds me of Avantasia’s style of vocal driven momentum with solid riffing, soloing, and a fist pumping chorus that just makes you feel all sorts of good when it’s playing. It is the absolute most perfect way to start an album, end of story. End of Our Rope has a similar vibe but with some interesting stylistic similarities to certain “goth” bands such as Within Temptation, which actually suits quite well since Nocturnal Rites keeps its feet planted into its metallic roots very firmly unlike many of the more recent goth bands that get too caught up in the atmosphere rather than the musicianship. Speaking of atmosphere, Nocturnal Rites can do that too, and in Cuts Like a Knife, Naglfar’s Kristoffer Olivius lays down his abrasive vocals over infectious and chunky riffs. Combined, the rhythm and Olivius give the song a sinister feel, with the keyboards tipping the scale absolutely in that favor. Lindqvist sounds good here, too, pelting out his lines unabashedly as always but he’s balanced out by the atmosphere of the song.
Many times throughout the album I was reminded of the somewhat melodious and straightforward nature of Brainstorm’s songwriting, most notably on Liquid Monster, and you can hear this really well on Our Wasted Days and Something Undefined. Even Masterplan comes to mind in some cases, but only in its less melodic and more progressive moments, when riffs get chunky and somewhat irregular (such as on the debut album), a borderline sound that still leans towards power metal in the end. The comparisons are definitely there for one to make and most, if not all, of them are German which isn’t surprising at all given the popularity and influence of the country’s contribution to the genre. The quality, however, is a bit more polarizing.
For example, a couple tracks really aren’t all that interesting and are entirely skippable. One by One doesn’t go anywhere particularly exciting; it just hums along nonchalantly without aspiring to the greater heights of the other tracks. The same is true for Our Wasted Days, which has some cool riffs sprinkled in, but overall it’s a wasted effort in its current state. Furthermore - and I hate to go there again, but I feel that I really have to - the production just kills all the effort Nocturnal Rites put into this album. When you’re writing songs that remind listeners of other bands that can in some ways do things better it’s a good idea to try to hide that fact rather than draw attention to it. The band might draw from a large pool of influences (whether intentionally or not) but there is just no escaping the subconscious comparisons and the subsequent deflation of opinion that occurs when the songs sound this one dimensional (and therefore inferior).
So, there you have it. Grand Illusion clearly isn’t bad; it just suffers from poor production, some misguided vocal deliveries, and a couple fillers that bring down the only thing the album has going for it. What should be so glaringly obvious to a band at this point in its career is puzzlingly overlooked and the result is an album that, as far as impressions go, has been left in a seemingly unfinished state.