A well-established disadvantage of the internet, and particularly social media, is that it gives anyone and everyone a voice and an open public platform. Conversely, it is also its biggest advantage, allowing creators and artists to share their output with the world without the need for a traditional publicist, manager, record label etc. Youtube in particular hosts a plethora of exciting and innovative musicians, and it was here that I first discovered Ola Englund. The Swedish guitarist is currently part of two bands (The Haunted and Feared) but it is for his Youtube channel that he is most well-known, where he makes the often dry topic of guitar gear reviews/demos engaging and relevant through a combination of wit, humour and his very likable personality. On the back of all his guitar knowledge he also launched his own guitar company: Solar Guitars. Quite how he found the time to record an album amongst all his other day jobs is beyond me, yet here we are, with his debut solo album, Master of the Universe.
At first glance, song titles like “Pizza Hawaii” and “That Youtube Song” make you think of comedy acts like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords. Don’t be fooled, the music doesn’t reflect this: the whole thing is a serious and finely crafted instrumental album. Englund describes it as something different to his previous releases and, true to his word, the music doesn’t have quite the extremity or heaviness of his work with The Haunted and Feared. The opening couple of tracks, “Pizza Hawaii” and “Cerberus”, sit somewhere between Dream Theater and Toska, combining the progressive yet groove laden riffs of the former with the experimental chord shapes of the latter. The use of synths and backing choirs adds extra layers to the tracks, bringing a Devin Townsend esq breadth to the music. Not all the influences are from the progressive world: “Cerberus” in particular has a riff that any modern metal guitarist would kill to have written, crossing Black Label Society with Tremonti for crushing impact. “Slutet på Skivan” follows a similar vein initially, with a hauntingly melodic piano introduction leading into a slowly chugging riff, but then goes off on a tangent with bouncy piano chords and a broken guitar riff that is as surprising as it is gratifying.
The centre-pieces of the album are undoubtedly the two parts of “Solar”. Both parts run just shy of twelve minutes each (more than double the length of any of the other tracks) and are where Englund really stretches his musical creativity. There are acoustic and piano led sections, large ambient sections, faster riff-based sections… and the movements between them all feel like a natural progression of the piece. Even the change into funk territory towards the end of part one is smoothly done due to the gradual introduction of slap bass in the preceding section. The surprise in part two comes courtesy of an extended baritone saxophone solo, with the switch to relaxed lounge jazz happening more suddenly than the switch to funk in part one, but it doesn’t seem forced. This is the one part of the album where I feel that something could have been cut shorter, as the saxophone solo does begin to outstay its welcome towards the end. It doesn’t appear anywhere else on the album so perhaps was given more time than strictly necessary, but this is entirely personal preference and does not have much of a negative impact on the piece overall.
I admit that I was quite nervous going into this album. I will be forever thankful that Ola Englund has opted to make pieces of music with depth and structure rather than just laying down some chords for him to shred over (as some guitarists tend to do). The whole album sounds like it has been immaculately assembled, with ebbs and flows to the tracks that make it more akin to a film score than a rock album. A heavy metal film score maybe? It certainly has the production quality for it, with every note and instrument clear and distinct from each other. Whether you are after extended progressive pieces or short and punchy riff-based songs, there is something here for rock fans from across the spectrum. He may not be Master of the Universe, but Ola Englund is certainly close to being a master of our heavy corner of it.
Highlights: “Cerberus”, “Solar Part 1” and “Slutet på Skivan”
Master of the Universe is available from 24th March and can be purchased here.