There is no doubt in my mind that Royal Hunt stand as one of the world's most underrated bands. I don't think I have ever seen another band who have churned out quality release after quality release and have never managed to gain a fraction of the respect and popularity they deserve. The band has gone through their different phases and lineup changes over the years, and this album is no exception. Even from just their previous album, Collision Course, the band have traded in old bassist Per Schelander for Rob Rock/Narnia bassist Andreas Passmark. To be fair, a bass player almost never effects the outcome of an average metal album, and this is really no exception. So, given that the other four guys in the band remain unchanged (especially stalwart keyboard mainman Andre Andersson), one shouldn't expect too many shakeups from the Royal Hunt they have come to know.
However, the band had promised something special for this, "X", their tenth album. This album was intentionally written and recorded to have a 1970's musical vibe running throughout it. I would say two things definitely serve to make this audible throughout the disc. Marcus Jidell's guitar sounds are certainly more organic and less heavy and traditionally metal, and Andersson's keyboard tones are very reminiscent of that of Deep Purple and classic 70's prog - more analog synths, Hammond organs, and B3 going on than ever before. The production value of this album manages to stay more or less on par with that of their previous release, which I felt was their strongest to date in that department. The classic, organic vibe comes much more from the instrument tones rather than the production, which is still quite solid by today's standards.
So, onto the songs themselves - enclosed here we have 11 tracks, two of which serve as merely bookends for the other nine. "Arrival" manages to set up the first track, "The End of the Line" quite well, serving very much as an overture for what you are about to hear. The aforementioned opening track proper is certainly a far cry from some of this band's powerhouse openers of the past (namely that of their previous album), but that's not to say it's not a great tune. It's just that this time 'round the band opted for more of a mid-tempo, driving groove - which actually does well to some up this album's departure from their previous release. "King For a Day" sees the band bringing in some heavier riffs as well as their trademark layered call-and-response vocals. I really dig the keyboards in this tune for some reason, and Mark Boals's lead vocals do much to prove why I have been so happy to be wrong about initially doubting his place in this band. It's honestly starting to become hard for me to hear anyone else as the voice of Royal Hunt as time goes by, and I think this may have been the perfect marriage for both Mark and the band as a whole. The next track, "The Well" is probably my favorite song on this record, accentuated by some brilliant orchestrally-driven arrangements and really cool riffs. The first minute or so of this tune is honestly really interesting and had me very excited for what would follow it. The band manage to keep the level of awesomeness up for the duration of the track, as they march headstrong into more uptempo territory, more reminiscent of some of their classic, more poppy numbers. The band strays a bit more into the "fun" territory with the entertaining "Army of Slaves", featuring some cool grooves and more great vocals from Mr. Boals - honestly this is quite possibly the catchiest tune here, which for a Royal Hunt disc, pretty much lets you know where you stand. "Shadowman" sees the band exploring some somewhat foreign territory for them, a very acoustically driven, yet uptempo number. The tune gets pretty heavy and rockin' one we hit the instrumental section, flooded with great organ solos and eventually leading into some cool female lead vocals. The band definitely took a bit of a chance with this one and I think it paid off. "Back to Square One" may have to take the award for the song that best recognizes the band's intended 70's theme, complimented by very retro keyboards, a fun rockin' arrangement, and an all-around classic rock sort of vibe, but in a nice and fresh sort of way. Again, the band no doubt bring the melodies and hooks, but the lyrics of this tune see a tad troubling to me - being that they seem to bring to mind a frustration with touring and lack of substance, possibly hinting at a desire to start a fresh life, which ties into rumors I've heard suggesting that this may very well be Royal Hunt's last album. I can't say I would blame them, for it must indeed be frustrating to churn out quality music for so long and forge a sound very much your own to be constantly overlooked and just fail to ever really "make it". It'd be a damn shame too, because the band continues to prove their mettle with tracks such as "Blood Red Stars", featuring a solid 3-minutes of brilliant musical texture in the beginning, before making its way into an all-around great tune. "The Last Leaf" is pretty much your standard sort of ballad - this band has honestly done better, but as long as you don't have some issue with piano ballads, you're gonna dig this one. The band winds the album down with "Falling Down", one of its faster and more intense numbers, and amongst its best as well. Again, I can't overstate how much I think the vocals of Mark Boals have really given Royal Hunt a fresh, new identity - enough to make me say this is probably my second favorite era of their career behind the classic DC Cooper stuff. "Departure" brings things to a more proper close, sending yet one more album into the extensive catalog of this underrated band.
At the end of the day, I have to say I think this album is a bit of a step down from their previous album, Collision Course, but to be fair that was my second favorite album they've ever done. I am not disappointed, I was just not blown away, as I was with the last record. I very much admire this band's decision to turn from what I feel was their most metal record to date and in turn do a "roots"-based, more basic and "rockin'" sort of album. It definitely gives the listener something extra to get excited about and assure that this won't be a record that gets lost in the shuffle easily, because unlike many other bands ten albums into their career - Royal Hunt have no entered cruise control mode and are still doing their absolute best to make the greatest album they can. Well played, sirs.