GRAND – Second To None

Grand’s debut album was one of the best AOR albums of 2022. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Swedish band dropped a record that encapsulated some of the very best sounds from an unfashionable genre. The songs shared strong influences from the likes of Work of Art and Lionville, but with the help from a dash of pop and some absolutely killer choruses, Grand made a well worn style feel a little perkier than most.

That record set a high standard, so it was always inevitable that a second record mightn’t match up, but it’s fair to say that the best bits of ‘Second To None’ continue to mine a similarly rich vein of very commercial melodic rock. The band’s love of a classic sound comes through almost immediately on ‘Crash & Burn’ when a chopping guitar at the heart of the song sounds a little like a throwback to old Mr. Mister and John Waite albums. With everything further lifted by a world of harmony vocals on a big chorus hook, it becomes even stronger. A hard rhythm guitar is given pride of place during a brief instrumental break instead of a clichéd solo, which really accentuates the pop feel that Grand seemingly love more than your average melodic rock band, comparatively speaking, and with those harmonies sounding even stronger by the time the final chorus rolls around, fans probably couldn’t ask for a stronger opener. With a circular riff supplied by bright, tinkling keys, the opening of ‘When We Were Young’ gives a vague nod to Mr. Mister’s classic ‘Kyrie’, but quickly takes on more of its own identity with the help of a soaring guitar sound and a bigger love for melodic rock on another superb chorus. By stoking up the drums, this track manages to balance some great pop/rock with a reasonable amount of punch, and a smart lead guitar break will further entertain those who love AOR with strong 80s tones. It’s the vocals that impress most of all, though; frontman Mattias Olofsson approaches his broad melodies with a smoothness that such a style needs, yet still has a great presence, and the layered harmonies really sound like the perfect throwback to a bygone era of 80s rock.

‘Kryptonite’ crashes in with a harder riff and wailing guitars, promising something even bigger, but in some ways, the tougher edge actually masks some of the great pop melodies. This makes the verse feel slightly sluggish, but moving into the pre-chorus, more of Grand’s beloved harmonies give things a massive lift, and even though the chorus isn’t one of the band’s strongest – there’s certainly more of a reliance of an overly simple hook – their three voices sound great together. A few plays suggests there’s actually a half-decent song here that’ll strike a chord with lovers of the more guitar driven sound, but the arrival of spoken word samples instead of a guitar solo add to the feelings that this track seems rather unbalanced. Not to worry, since ‘Out of The Blue’ which immediately follows, is top tier Grand. Blending a soaring guitar and a strong set of chords, the pop/rock that emerges occasionally doesn’t feel a million miles away from ‘Balance of Power’ era ELO with more of an AOR slant. Naturally, this suits Mattias very well indeed, and the band’s gift for a great pop chorus gives an already great track the perfect send off, whilst the enjoyable ‘All Or Nothing’ rocks things up just a little more thanks to a dirtier guitar sound, showing how Grand’s tougher edges can work. With a riff and an overall mood that sounds like a homage to the commercial end of Thunder’s work meeting the more disposable elements of the Bryan Adams catalogue circa 1984, the number has an immediately fun feel, but with the aid of another great guitar solo and a classic sounding chorus hook, it doesn’t skimp on those all important decent melodies.

In a complete change of tone, ‘Rock Bottom’ opts for a slow and stodgy rock arrangement where a spacious verse sounds rather stodgy. Sounding more like XYZ channelling the moodier end of the melodic rock scale, it’s one of those tracks that has a good riff, but seemingly has no real idea of where to take it. After a couple of bars, it actually becomes a little boring. Well played, definitely, but just not at all interesting, and compared to the previous album’s ‘Make It Grand’ and this elpee’s ‘Out of The Blue’ it just doesn’t sound natural. In terms of their rockier edge, Grand sound much better when mixing an energetic style with a little crunch, as they do on ‘Sweet Talker’. Working around a great drum groove from Anton Martinez Matz, the guitar switches between an almost bluesy swagger and big rock chords with ease, and working through a speed driven rocker, the whole of Grand sound as if they’re having great fun. Ensuring this doesn’t just drop into the tried and tested, an unexpected sax break lifts everything brilliantly, and a strange mismatch of bluesy soloing and pompy keys (with hints of Styx circa 1980) shows how the band aren’t afraid to mix things up. Although not everything on this album works as well as you’d hope, the album’s big ballad, ‘Daze of Yesterday’, cannot be faulted. Opening with a broad vocal and piano melody as if modelled upon an emotive theme from a light romantic drama movie from 1985, it starts strongly before slowly branching out to feature bright sounding guitars and a steady rhythm. Ending up sounding like a Peter Cetera piece meeting with a Survivor ballad, the love for older AOR is huge. It slowly builds in such a way that it allows the trio to each have a turn in the spotlight, but in many ways, it’s Jakob Svensson who steals the show with a massively melodic lead guitar break that really compliments the track’s core melody. AOR fans will have heard this kind of thing many, many times over the years, but this style of rock balladry is still enjoyable when delivered so effortlessly.

Grand don’t care for fashion, but what they do, they often do very well indeed. It might still be 1987 in the sunniest corner of their recording studio, but this album shares more than enough good time rock and – once again – just enough of a poppy edge on the best tracks to make their classic sound sparkle in all the right places, ensuring that those who enjoyed the debut will find lots to enjoy this second time around. Even with a couple of dodgy tracks, there’s enough musical gold here to believe that this Swedish trio are still among the greatest hopes for old style melodic rock in the twenty first century.

January 2024