Okay, let’s get this out of the way first – yes, this is the same Europe who had a global mega-hit with ‘The Final Countdown’ nearly 30 years ago (blimey!). You may laugh and you may titter but that’s one more global mega-hit than any of us have had so let’s leave the hairspray and make-up comments in the past and focus on the music, and ever since reuniting in 2003 after a decade away these all-conquering Swedes have been on peak form with such hard rocking gems as 2009’s brilliant “Last Look at Eden” and 2012’s bluesier “Bag of Bones” proving that good bands can get better with age. Which is just as well because latest album “War of Kings” continues that line of quality and sees the band expanding on those two albums and also paying homage to their influences.
The opening title track comes running in on a Deep Purple-esque keyboard/guitar melody before singer Joey Tempest lets loose with those powerful vocal pipes of his in a song that wouldn’t sound that radically different if it was being played by a European power metal band, except that John Norum‘s guitars are more subtle, letting the melody carry the song rather than propelling it with crunching riffs. In terms of an opening track it’s not as dynamic as you may expect but the haunting keyboard undercurrents and Tempest‘s rich vocals give it a certain majesty that sees it earn its rightful place at the top of the album. This understated start is then given a boost of power with the pacier ‘Hole in My Pocket’ that again recalls a younger and hungrier Deep Purple but without resorting to blatant copying. Mic Michaeli‘s constant underpinning of the main riff with his uncomplicated melodies filling out the sound lift what could have been just a standard album track into something more notable.
However, it is the middle section of the album that is the most interesting. The laid-back blues of ‘Praise You’ continues the vibe set by “Bag of Bones” but has something else going on, giving off a slight – and it is ever so slight – stoner rock mood that you could imagine the band stripping the instruments back for and playing acoustically. Joey Tempest digs deep and gives the vocals an emotional core that many a balladeer would exchange their larynx for but without resorting to syrupy faux love song tactics, while John Norum‘s intricate guitar picking delivers a similarly poignant punch, creating a trippy blues-rock journey that makes you want the band to tap into this well a little more often.
They follow that track up with another ballsy rocker in the shape of ‘Nothin’ to Ya’, which also stands high above the majority of the tracks on the album due to the sheer force of the vocal melody and the catchy chorus, a fact hammered home by ‘California 405’, the song that follows it and probably the least appealing track on the album. It’s not terrible but it does nothing to get excited about and would probably have served better as a bonus track. Nevertheless, the band soon find their mojo again and end the album strong with the touching ballad ‘Angels (With Broken Hearts)’ and the mid-’70s Zeppelin worship of ‘Light Me Up’. If you buy the special edition CD you get an instrumental bonus track called ‘Vasastan’ that sees the band tapping into the blues mood set up by ‘Praise You’ and bringing things towards a final close on a relaxed note before reprising the close of the title track for one more display of hard rock goodness.
Produced by Dave Cobb (Rival Sons), “War of Kings” sounds incredible and brings to mind those heavy-hitting, no-frills hard rock albums of the 1970s but with a modern edge that gives each musician their chance to be heard, and when the band are in full flight on tracks like the mighty ‘Children of the Mind’ or the celebratory ‘Days of Rock n’ Roll’ there’s really not a finer sound to be heard anywhere. Any band over 30 years old and into double figures with their album releases can be forgiven for sounding like they are going through the motions at times but with “War of Kings” Europe still sound like a band with something to prove; of course, by this point in their career they haven’t but it warms the heart to know that they still care enough to put this much effort into crafting an album that, given a little bit of time to bed in amongst the established back catalogue (and that song), could be considered as possibly their finest work to date.