rating icon 9.5 / 10

Track listing:

1. On This Day I Fight
2. In Every Waking Hour
3. If I Could Fly
4. Riot
5. This Means War
6. Scream
7. Animalistic
8. Wildfire
9. Shot in the Dark
10. Last Man Alive
11. King for a Day

Looking back, it's remarkable how many classic hard rock artists' legendary albums were released in rapid succession. The first six KISS studio records were issued over a span of just 40 months; "Paranoid" came out only seven months after BLACK SABBATH's debut, with "Master of Reality" following a scant 10 months later; and the 1970s also saw four killer (ahem) ALICE COOPER titles released in less than two years, while the first four records by QUEEN, LED ZEPPELIN, RUSH and AC/DC didn't take much longer.

Over the past decade, Swedish guitarist / vocalist / songwriter Erik Martensson has managed to successfully tap into a similar rapid-fire creative vein, as his output in that time includes five superb albums by his primary musical vehicle, ECLIPSE; three LPs by the AOR supergroup W.E.T. ; two AMMUNITION records alongside WIG WAM vocalist Age Sten Nielsen; and now, with the release of "Animalistic", three by NORDIC UNION, a collaboration with fellow Scandinavian Ronnie Atkins (PRETTY MAIDS). His own prolificity notwithstanding, Martensson has also in recent years produced, mixed and mastered notable releases by the likes of THERION, UNLEASHED and THE CRUEL INTENTIONS, the latter of which ("Venomous Anonymous", issued earlier this year) looked to be 2022's runaway melodic rock album to beat: until now.

Although NORDIC UNION is admittedly just a "side project," "Animalistic" might well be Martensson's masterpiece — a record that will not only make you bang your head until your neck cramps, but also sing along until your voice gives out. (It's that good.) Still, the album wouldn't feel as magical without Atkins's passionate vocals, who continues his inspired race against father time after being diagnosed with incurable stage 4 lung cancer in 2020. Since then, he's taken a cue from Martensson and released two full-length solo albums plus an EP, and "Animalistic" sees the 57-year-old Dane once again spit in fate's face by sounding as energetic as a teenager.

While 2018's "Second Coming" saw Martensson and Atkins go in a moodier direction than NORDIC UNION's self-titled 2016 debut, "Animalistic" lives up to its name from the opening bell. Frantic album kickoff "On This Day I Fight" is the band's heaviest song yet, a sneering and defiant anthem in which they up the BPM considerably (both theirs and yours). Somewhat reminiscent of early MASTERPLAN, its galloping chorus incorporates more of a power metal influence than the band has displayed to date, but minus the attendant cheese. And while Atkins's gruff, weathered rasp is the star of the show, knockout punches are also delivered by UNLEASHED guitarist Fredrik Folkare, whose blazing solo work here and elsewhere throughout the album merit considerable praise.

The fiery music video for first single "In Every Waking Hour" is a perfect metaphor for the song itself. Featuring a chugging staccato riff, the track shapeshifts impressively, at first recalling MUSE in its atmospheric opening verse before exploding into an undeniable, irresistible chorus. From there, a similar sense of expert craftsmanship is displayed in "If I Could Fly", in which a moody intro quickly gives way to a percussive, down-tuned riff that, by melodic rock standards, is borderline venomous, but the song then segues into a powerful, soaring chorus that, in an alternate timeline, would inspire legions of arena singalongs.

"Riot" is the album's lone breather, a Nashville-by-way-of-Scandinavia ballad in which Atkins ponders how to "turn down the riot in (his) head." Vocally, he softens his usual gruffness and instead delivers a vulnerable performance more suited to the song's subject matter, while guitarist Thomas Larsson (BALTIMOORE, GLENN HUGHES) — who guests on three songs on "Animalistic" — contributes a fluid, harmonized solo that ups the goosebump factor even further. Although it's an undeniably impressive achievement, the song feels somewhat out of place in the context of the album as a whole (the lone reason I couldn't justify the extra half-point).

A sneering, ominous riff and militaristic chug introduce the fittingly titled "This Means War", another imaginary arena anthem with infectious sing-along chants and more fretboard pyrotechnics from Folkare. It's followed by the urgent and infectious "Scream", a poppier sibling of ECLIPSE's "Never Look Back" that would be a surefire rock radio smash in a parallel universe devoid of Three Days of Disturbing Roaches, Shining Deadmen With Five Fingers and their ilk.

The somewhat pedestrian verse of "Animalistic" initially makes you wonder if the song is worthy of serving as the album's title track, but when its urgent chorus hits, Martensson scores yet another knockout. Clearly, whatever's in the water in Sweden was laced with extra piss and vinegar this time around, as — pardon the pun — the song is less AOR than R-O-A-R. Meanwhile, Atkins's colorful, charismatic performance drips with personality and passion, and a blistering Folkare solo is the proverbial cherry on top.

"Wildfire" is just that, featuring another soaring chorus and a fierce, focused precision. Atkins's anguished vocals — capably accented by excellent lead guitar garnish — convey a gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails attitude, but thanks to Martensson, it's presented with a scalpel-sharp surgical sheen. "Shot in the Dark" is yet more evidence that the album might well be the most impassioned performance of Atkins's career, and if you can somehow resist the song's magnetism, please check your pulse.

The more midtempo "Last Man Alive" would be single-worthy on WHITESNAKE '87, but here, it's simply track 10. But lest you think Atkins, Martensson and company are going soft or running out of gas as they approach the finish line, NORDIC UNION delivers one final blast of fiery defiance in "King for a Day", a track that upon completion practically dares you to resist the temptation to go back to track one and start the exhilarating ride all over again.

At the risk of sounding maudlin or insensitive, it's impossible not to read into the album's lyrics — its very first line even begins with the words "If this is the end" — and wonder if "Animalistic" will serve as Atkins's musical epitaph. If so, it's the equivalent of going out in a blaze of glory, as the album might well be the most aggressive and exhilarating melodic hard rock record since "Slave To The Grind". As for Martensson, "Animalistic" continues his remarkable streak of expertly crafted, top-shelf releases, and it proves once again that his best album will likely be his next one.

Author: Clay Marshall
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