GRAND – Grand

A new band for 2022, Grand was formed by session vocalist Mattias Olafsson with the desire to pay tribute to the big, shiny sounds of 80s melodic rock. Enlisting drummer Anton Martinez Matz and Wigelius guitarist Jakob Svensson, he quickly set to work on making his musical dream a reality. Having Svensson on board from the early stages would obviously be a major boon, since Wigelius were one of those bands, along with Work of Art, who just managed to pitch an 80s AOR sound pretty much perfectly, decades after most of the world stopped craving the sounds of Survivor and Robert Tepper for their biggest musical thrills. Having worked wonders with his own band, there was every chance that his guitar tones and musical talents would be a key ingredient within Olafsson’s musical vision.

…And, indeed, his playing is often great. In fact, this debut recycles almost everything that was great about 80s melodic rock in a massively convincing way. Its eleven songs are absolutely overflowing with really shiny keys, chopping guitars and massive hooks, and the vocals, although carrying the same Scandinavian lilt as Work of Art and Perfect Plan, are perfectly suited to the job in hand. It’s all music out of time in 2022, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t massively enjoyable.

‘Caroline’ wastes no time in showcasing a huge harmony vocal set against a bell-like keyboard sound. Fans of Swedish AOR should quickly spot a kinship with the brilliant Work of Art in the way that Grand aren’t shy of celebrating all things of a pop-ish nature, and it doesn’t take too long for a strong melody to explode into a massive chorus where a huge vocal is underscored by a pleasingly choppy guitar. With further melodies interspersed with shameless 80s keys evoking the sound of some very unfashionable guitar synths, it has a superb musical pedigree, but it’s the vocal that wins out. A couple of listens in, and it’s clear that Olaffson is blessed with a great set of pipes and by the time he cries his way through the chorus one last time, he sells the melody in such a way, it feels like something you’ve known forever. If there’s any criticism here at all, though, it’s that the drums are rather dull; a rigid, flat sound is often employed, very much lacking the expected punch. It’s a minor point, of course, since the songwriting is in a classic AOR style and the general mood uplifts in the way you’d hope most things in this style would be able.

Even better, ‘Stone Cold’ opens with a huge, parping keyboard sound that is reminiscent of the theme tune from an 80s quiz show – or, perhaps, the session work from Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke – and, as such, is hugely nostalgic. Increasing the guitars and the pace, a pumping bass drives the verse forward, and moving into the chorus, everything peaks with a perfect AOR sound where harmony vocals dance above a chopping guitar as if the alternative movement of the 90s never happened. Everything about this track is almost perfect: from the mechanised rhythm tapping into the techy AOR boom of ’87, the broad melodic strokes that carry another superb vocal, a huge, sweeping lead guitar solo, and the keys that punch through another retro chorus, it really sets the tone for the rest of the album. The band’s de facto title anthem offers a slight change of mood at first by opening with a rigid acoustic guitar riff and a massive “na-na” vocal hook worthy of Extreme, and although more of an AOR slant is taken through the verse, there’s still something about the track that feels a little more indebted to the early 90s. Perhaps it’s the keys which carry the ghost of old Dan Reed Network tunes; perhaps its the slightly funkier groove at the heart of the track, or the traces of the anthemic sound of the oft-forgotten Roadhouse… Whatever the inspiration, Grand tackle the job in hand with a massive confidence, and the end result is as catchy as hell. Despite the wordless backing vocals being the number’s most memorable feature, it’s all brilliantly arranged, and Svensson’s guitar work is especially strong throughout, leading to another melodic rocker that’s out of time but massively fun.

On the slightly harder side, ‘Ready When You Are’ employs a much chunkier guitar and a massive, driving riff. It’s good to hear Svensson cutting loose, and although the band adopt more of a sound that perhaps owes a little more to early Hardline, Olaffson’s distinctive voice keeps everything in line with the rest of the material. The chunkier sound means there’s plenty of scope for a bigger vocal, of course, and he hits some massive wails with ease, before a pleasingly retro keyboard solo that captures the spirit of the Hammond greats of yesteryear rises from within. It’s interesting that Svensson doesn’t relish the chance to break into a bigger guitar solo than usual – maybe he thought things could easily be overdone – but all things considered, it’s a superb rocker. For those hankering after more 80s sounds, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ delivers the goods in style, first via a wibbly keyboard sound and more bell like accompaniments, and then via a gorgeous soaring guitar that could’ve been lifted straight from a dozen classic melodic rock albums. Clearly knowing the style inside out, Mattias and friends then load a chorus with big, multi-layered vocals set against a solid mid tempo groove, creating a twenty first century genre classic. ‘Too Late’ continues with the shameless 80s love, throwing out a rhythm that sounds like a band in the middle of a gym workout, allowing Svensson to indulge in some pumped up bass work. Taking the speed driven music in hand, Mattias rises to the challenge and offers a suitably enthused performance, but he’s quickly outshone by a ridiculously squirly keyboard solo that aims squarely at the pomp market. It’s a little more throwaway than most of Grand’s material, but there’s so much here to enjoy, and the band’s love of AOR and a retro style remains more than clear.

Elsewhere, ‘Johnny On The Spot’ offers another piece of punchy melodic rock that sounds as if it came from 1989 and Although the lighter vocals suggest something European, the music could’ve been pulled straight from the Bad English debut; ‘After We’ve Said Goodbye’ provides a solid companion to tunes like ‘Stone Cold’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’, again showing how Svensson’s guitar and keyboard work is in a perfect empathy with Mattias’s vocals, even though Mattias shows off a slightly softer approach, and ‘Those Were The Days’ recycles a bright sound and solid rhythm that, once more, invites easy comparisons with fellow Swedes Work of Art. This is particularly obvious during an especially thoughtful pre-chorus where a soft backing vocal fleshes out a solid groove, and it’s fair to say that if you have any interest in classic sounding AOR, you’ll love these tunes, regardless of any lack of originality.

You won’t find anything new or inventive here, but to expect that would be missing the point. Grand’s homage to the glory days of AOR is almost perfectly pitched. Much like Wigelius and Lionville, this debut is further proof that the Swedes are the best at capturing the pure AOR/melodic rock sound in the twenty first century. If you’ve found yourself reaching for those Work of Art and Lionville albums long after release, even in an age where it’s all too easy to feel swamped by new music, then this is definitely an album to savour. It mightn’t be remotely fashionable, but it sure as hell lifts the mood. The choruses are invariably massive and drawn from a vintage stock; the soaring guitar lines add feel good textures throughout, and in terms of all round retro catchiness, the band hit the mark pretty much every time. An absolutely fantastic disc.

Buy the CD here: GRAND – Grand

October 2022