The Universal Mind Project (here on referred to as UMP) are brainchild of guitarist and composer Michael Alexander. The whole premise of the group is that there is a core nucleus of four members who lay the foundations for guest vocalists and instrumentalists to come and create with them. In a way, it’s very Ayreon like in this setting, but unlike the Dutch prog powerhouse, UMP bring a more Euro-Metal and Symphonic presence to their music. The best way to describe this band who have had a whole raft of guest contributors including Charlie Dominici (ex-Dream Theater), Mike LePond (Symphony X) and Mark Jansen (Epica) and many more. With an album which the presser claims delivers slices of progressive, intricate arrangements with symphonic sounds bringing a spiritual and philosophical depth content wise, it is quite ambitious for a debut album… But if you don’t dream big and take a punt, you never know right?
Given the sheer depth and number of contributing musicians, it will be hard to go into the usual level of depth which I usually would for a release like this, but I promise to try and cover as much as possible. There will be parts overlooked or not touched on, but in the spirit of the albums lyrical themes, sometimes it’s best to discover things yourself rather than have the way paved for you.
The Vocal dynamics are one of the major points of this album, given how there are essentially three core components to it before you even count the guests. Elina Laivera and Henrik Båth [Darkwater, Waken Eyes] handle the clean and melodic vocals whilst mastermind Alexander handles the growls. The way Elina and Henrik interact on the tracks, trading lines, harmonies, drawing focus on certain passages or working with the music behind is spectacular. The soft and richly melodic, almost ‘angelic’ tone to Elina’s voice is complimented well by the raw power in Henrik’s delivery and then adding the likes of Jansen and Dominici to the mix just expands it even more. The vocal lines themselves are like an instrumental melody, carrying some of the tracks and really shining out.
Musically, it has a vast and diverse range of styles and approaches. Some tracks do have an edge of familiarity in song sound style, whether this was due to the guest vocalist’s input or Alexander composing it this way to help the guest lay down their part is up for debate, but the range from symphonic power metal in the vein of Sonata Arctica, Within Temptation and Nightwish to the Dream Theater-esque progressive sections is executed with precision and power. The attention to detail in the composition and how all the elements interact with the core nucleus of the band is spectacular and the epic deliveries in the key moments really stand out.
Tracks like the thunderous, fast paced and energetic album opener, “Anthem For Freedom” really highlight the melodic and heavy styling’s of the band and show how the varied vocal approaches come across, giving a typical symphonic metal track a whole new life. “Awakened By The Light” is a richly atmospheric track full of feeling in its delivery, going from subtle builds to beautifully arranged and complex acoustic sections to rhythmically solid dramatic metallic riffs with a progressive edge where the composition and arrangements of the instrumental contributions to the track really add so much depth. “A World That Burns” is a slow and sombre feeling song which conveys real emotions in the delivery. The soft female vocals with the piano and string sections backing it up has a real relaxing feel and a beautiful yet sad edge to it.
“The Jaguar Priest”, the album’s title track is the crown jewel of the release. With Dominici handling guest vocal duties, you know it’s going to be a huge track and it is. Atmospheric from the start, with chilling vocal samples, hypnotic synth effects, steady drums and a growing sense of anticipation, it is your standard, epic tale style track. Dynamic vocal delivery with real passion in it helps convey the story in the lyrics over a real progressive metal feel and the musicianship on display is fantastic – so many tricky riffs and lead fills are executed with surgical precision and it shows just what UMP are capable of.
Overall, there is so much more to talk about regarding this release. Musically it is precise, carefully arranged, flowing freely but at the same time in a very controlled manner due to the excellent composition of the tracks. Symphonic and Progressive with the classic feel of Euro-Metal, UMP have created a rather unique sound which sits firmly between sub-genres, appealing to many. “The Jaguar Priest” is a carefully crafted release with meticulous planning written all over it. Whilst the technical depth may seem like overkill to some, it works and is the glue which holds the different styles and influences together to create a well rounded finished product. Progressive and Powerful, Symphonic and dramatic, it’s worth a listen!