A couple of things struck me about The Hunt pretty early on. Firstly – this is not exactly the same (excellent) thing as they’ve done before over a few iterations – more on that in a bit. Secondly – is JB (vocals and guitar) slowly stealing the rest of Spiritual Beggars? Yes, Grand Magus have had a wee lineup change since the mighty Hammer Of The North, and now it’s Ludwig Witt manning the drumstool. As appointments go, it’s a bit ‘World Of Duh’ – who better to pin down the rhythm than the longtime Spiritual Beggars and ex-Firebird man, after all? I’m not much of one for speculating over a band’s writing process, but it’s fairly likely that Witt’s involvement may have been at least partly responsible for the first of my thoughts about this release.
If you’re familiar with the band’s earlier work, which you really should be, then you’ll know that their sound used to be very unapologetically METAL with a decidedly classic bent – big riffs, bigger choruses and huge, crushing organic tones all designed to get the maximum amount of fringes flapping and horns fully raised – and really, the changes for The Hunt are individually pretty slight, yet add up to a different listening experience. It’s just a shift in what 70s/80s acts JB has decided to take off, with some ultimately very pleasing results – where albums like Iron Will and the aforementioned Hammer Of The North drew from the Sabbath/Priest well to great effect, The Hunt dials back the endless chug a bit and softens the production to suit a more, er, Dio-esque approach.
So, more hard rock than outright metal then? Oh yes indeed. You still get the odd smattering of double-bass drums for emphasis, but the feel of the whole thing is a lot less strained, with the looser riffing style lending itself admirably to JB’s hugely-improved vocals (he was ALWAYS a good singer, but on here? Some truly outstanding work!). Those self-same vocals wrap themselves around some of the biggest hooks this band have ever cast – we’re talking Whitesnake, Rainbow, even UFO rather than the more outright heavy and doomy avenues of prior records, and it suits the band so, so well. Special mention also to JB’s guitar work – tasteful, blues-drenched solos fully call up the ghosts of Moody/Marsden intimated by some of the rhythm parts and add an extra muso-pleasing diversion to an already-strong collection of songs.
Whether it’s a calculated move to set them apart from the hordes of bands aligning themselves along the stoner-doom axis or not, it’s a smart one – as much as I loved the earlier records, I always felt a slight sense that Grand Magus were settling for something less than they could truly be. The Hunt may even be the album that sets the band onto bigger and better things – its timeless blend of classic influences, enormous singalong moments and standout performances from all involved, allied to a powerful and modern, yet entirely appropriate production have seen it grow from a bit of a confusing aberration to comfortably my favourite Grand Magus release to date.