Released: 2006, Century Media Records
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
After the monumental and almost universal praise that was heaped upon Mercenary’s last album, 2004’s 11 DREAMS, following it up was going to be difficult as the bar was set impossibly high. When founding member/bassist/vocalist Henrik “Kral” Andersen announced his departure from the band in March of 2006, a critical piece of the Mercenary puzzle left with him and doubts were raised about the new album’s sound and direction.
Well, naysayers and skeptics be damned! THE HOURS THAT REMAIN, while no 11 DREAMS, boasts the same massive, multi-layered production and tuneful, progressive-power metal songs that pop with infectious choruses and melodies just as the band’s breakthrough did. Of the ten tracks, there is not a dud in the bunch and the expertly-played instruments come at the listener in a tsunami-like wall of sound that Mercenary is quickly making their signature. Jacob Hansen’s work behind the desk seems to be tailor-made for the band (this is his third partnership with Mercenary) and the big, powerful production is enriched with multi-layered vocals and instruments, each perfectly balanced and in its rightful place in the mix.
However, Kral’s absence is certainly felt, most notably in the vocal dynamic shared with Mikkel Sandager. Sandager’s soaring clean vocal was the perfect complement to Kral’s shrieks and gruff vocals and that element of Mercenary’s sound is now gone. In his place, the band has enlisted Soilwork’s Bjorn “Speed” Strid and Heaven Shall Burn’s Marcus Bischoff to handle the heavier stuff on two tracks but as a whole, that harder edge is greatly missed.
The “Mercenary sound” is best exemplified with lead-off track, “Redefine Me,” featuring a guest vocal by Strid. Chugging riffs, powerhouse drumming, grandiose keyboards and ear-catching vocal melodies have become as synonymous with Mercenary as the immediately recognizable sound of bands like Strapping Young Lad. Kral may be gone but Sandager is hardly a pushover in the vocal department as he demonstrates on “Year of The Plague,” with vicious howls in the verses that are offset by stunning, cleanly-sung choruses. Mike Park’s double bass here is equally potent, creating a swirling maelstrom of flailing blasts and kickdrum punch. “My World Is Ending” is ripe for release as a single with a bouncy groove and melodic riffs from Jakob Molbjerg that are reminiscent of 11 DREAMS’ title track. The proggy bass noodling and intricate drum patterns on “This Eternal Instinct” immediately show how much Mercenary have improved as musicians in a brief period. Morten Sandager’s unique keyboard flourishes on “Lost Reality” and the church-like vibe created on “Redefine Me” are the cherry on top of Mercenary’s already swelling sound, adding just that extra kick to take things to the next level. Martin Buus, the guitar prodigy who debuted on 11 DREAMS and helped usher Mercenary to its current status, once again has the Midas touch. “Soul Decision,” “Redefine Me” and “My Secret Window” are all capped off by delectable guitar solos that not only shred but are also performed with virtuoso-like skill and fluidity. Despite its length, the title track shifts through its eight minutes with a smooth chorus that is impossible to get out of your head and the old-fashioned lo-fi outro serves as a polar opposite to the previous hour of sonic perfection.
While not quite measuring up to 11 DREAMS, THE HOURS THAT REMAIN is still a remarkable album, rich in musical landscapes and listenable, accessible music that will please fans of the band. In all fairness, 11 DREAMS was so critically lauded that it became a monolithic benchmark in metal music in 2004 and nothing could have possibly topped it. Is Mercenary a victim of its own success? Maybe, but THE HOURS THAT REMAIN is still better produced, more slickly played and creatively-written than 99% of the albums out there and the efforts of the band should not be trivialized for it. Mercenary continues to raise the bar with their latest CD and despite facing setbacks and challenges, have unleashed yet another awe-inspiring collection of music that is pure enjoyment from start to finish.
KILLER KUTS: “Redefine Me,” “Year of The Plague,” “My World Is Ending,” “Lost Reality,” “Soul Decision,” “The Hours That Remain”