Released: November 2016
- Ronnie Atkins – vocals
- Ken Hammer – guitars
- Rene Shades – bass
- Allan Tschicaja – drums
Kim Olesen – keyboards
- When God Took a Day Off
- Face the World
- Humanize Me
- Last Beauty on Earth
- Bull’s Eye
- King of the Right Here and Now
- Heaven’s Little Devil
- Civilized Monsters
- Is That What You Wanted (Look What You’ve Got)
I almost started this, um, review (excursus might be more to the point; bear with me), by calling my new obsession a “guilty pleasure” – but you know what? Screw that. I am not in the least embarrassed by stumbling on this stuff, and if you other folks fail to appreciate some of the best damned metal I have ever laid ears on, then that’s not my problem. I’m just going to try to convince you otherwise.
I checked out Pretty Maids because a good friend is a passionate fan, and I am always interested in learning what greases my friends’ musical wheels. Often the explorations don’t amount to much, but sometimes something sticks. And I am surprised, I will admit: Pretty Maids is a glam rock/hard rock/metal outfit out of Denmark, who formed up way the hell back in 1981 and released their first album in 1984: in short they have been around for more than three decades and I had never heard of them.
As willing as I was to give them a shot, I was skeptical. At first glance, they seemed to be just another of the glam-metal hair bands of the 80s I so studiously avoided back in the day, because, well, I didn’t like any of the glam-metal hair bands I had heard. Worse, 35 years on, they were old glam rockers, and not really wearing it well (but honestly, who does?). This tired kitsch, along with the clearly not-Danish invented names, did not exactly inspire confidence.
But…when I popped the Kingmaker cd in and loaded it up…none of that mattered anymore. For the second time in five years, I discovered music that I had been waiting to hear for a lifetime. As much as I have always loved the heavier end of most genres, I never was much of a fan of straight-up hard rock or metal. It never appealed — I never really knew why, or what I wanted to hear from it…until now.
Kingmaker is Pretty Maids’ 16th album, and first album of all new material since Motherland in 2013. And what an album it is. If I had been paying attention last year, there is no doubt it would have landed easily in the top 5 of my 2016 year-end list.
What we have here is an album of not just heavy metal/hard rock, but very smart music indeed, crafted with care and insight, honouring melody, with an understated skill that only really becomes obvious the more you listen. Of course, the two principals (Atkins and Hammer) have been at this game for a long time, and it is clear that they have learned a thing or two.
The first track, “When God Took a Day Off” starts deceptively: an eerie vocal wail, a brief roll of drums, a growing chant over a keyboard wash – and then it Just. Kicks. Ass. While it may not be the absolute best track on the album, everything you need to know about the current Pretty Maids is all rolled up in this one song: the huge melodic themes, slick clean vocals followed by thickly overdubbed grit and rasp, monstrous guitar, a rhythm section that just chugs along. It is a song of enormous energy, mass and weight, interleaved with surprising delicacy. It’s all here.
The album moves from that monster opener right into the title track – and “Kingmaker” pulls out all the stops. This is Maids at their very metal best, mercilessly melodic, poundingly relentless, blistering guitar — what’s not to love? My favourite song on the album is the hugely addictive “Humanize Me”, with its hypnotic build up to a massive vocal delivery, a great melody atop thick relentless guitars and drums. This is a behemoth of a track.
The rest of the songs move through various iterations of metal/hard rock and back again, with a pause for “Last Beauty on Earth”, the album’s majestic ballad. These are a real strength of the band, and you can count on one or two on each release.
The songwriting and the vocals are what make the album – in fact what make the band. These are intelligent and skillfully crafted songs, hooky as all hell, generating more earworms per groove-foot than almost anything I have heard for many years. There is an obvious formula at work but it’s a damned good one. Atkins’ distinctive voice and somewhat mannered delivery serve the songs perfectly. He can sing cleanly when needed (especially in the ballads), but generally his voice is gritty and hoarse and many songs use a shit-ton of overdubs. The result is a massive and immensely satisfying equivalent of a vocal sledgehammer. And while studio work is one thing, any glance at a video demonstrates that he can pull it off live as well. I am impressed, frankly, that he still has a voice of any sort after all these many years.
The lyrics (not just on this album, but on most of them, from what I can tell) are often heavily political, a generalized discourse on the state of the modern world, terrorism, national decay and bad leadership; there are songs written several years ago that have turned out to be eerily prescient. The lyrics might be the most pleasant surprise of all – serving the needs of the song while actually saying something. Even in the rather poppy groupie-anthem “Heaven’s Little Devil” there is just enough ruefulness in the words to save the song from terminal cheesiness. I’m not sure who does the lyric-writing (both Atkins and Hammer are credited as the songwriters), but whoever is responsible, they are very good at it. And coming from me (probably over-critical of lyrics if anything), that is saying a lot.
So far my favourite Pretty Maids era is the current one. I have been sampling their discography, dipping in here and there, but I cannot fully embrace their earlier sound. Even Future World – the album that is described as their touchstone, the one that set their path and solidified their sound – is just too…1980s for my taste. I am in no position to argue about its importance, but I cannot love it. Still…it is surely something that a band as venerable as these guys can sound better in their old age than they did in their youth. As great as Kingmaker is, I’m pretty sure it is not their best: Pandemonium (2010), Motherland (2013), and even Louder Than Ever (2014; consisting mainly of rerecorded older material), are all phenomenal albums, all with great songs and pretty much not a dog in the bunch, showcasing maturity, confidence, strength – the kinds of attributes one would hope a band can achieve as it gets older. It is refreshing and a great relief to encounter a group who has managed to avoid the sad and all-to-common spectacle of once great outfits undertaking vain and often embarrassing attempts to relive the past; who demonstrate that getting older does not mean getting stale.
As long as Pretty Maids continue in this direction, I am an avid fan. I am even willing to forgive the slightly ridiculous stage get-up (nevertheless…guys, lose the make-up). And as a new enthusiast, I must echo the question that has been asked so often, by others: why aren’t these guys fucking HUGE? After 35 years there should be no way that a band this established, with this much energy and beauty in their music, should be so far under the radar that even I (who have been around since the dinosaurs) remained entirely oblivious to their existence.
Maybe one day they will make it to North America. Maybe….