Mastery is a make-or-break record for Lancer, one that could just as well propel their ascension into the upper echelon of the power metal scene as it could send them careening into the depths of obscurity. Recorded and released almost immediately following their major label deal with Nuclear Blast, it’s Lancer’s first chance to make an impression on most listeners. And, as is the case with anything in life, a band’s first impression dictates a great deal of their future successes and failures. Though I gave the band’s sophomore record, Second Storm, a glowing review a few years ago, it’s lost some of its luster in my eyes and doesn’t truly distinguish Lancer from the sizeable crop of progressive-leaning modern power metal acts. Mastery, on the other hand, is a somewhat different animal; though it’s by no means anything particularly daring or risky, it marks a definite step forward in terms of songwriting and clearly showcases a greater variety of influences than the band’s usual Maiden-tinged power metal shtick.
All talk of risk or development aside, about half of this album would’ve fit snugly onto any of Lancer’s previous releases. “Dead Raising Towers” kicks things off in stellar and straightforward fashion, boasting the record’s best chorus and providing a solid foundation for the tracks that follow. Though the placement of the equally simple and somewhat unmemorable “Future Millennia” second is a questionable move, things start to get interesting once the title track rolls around. With a crushing, down-tuned main riff straight out of the Symphony X playbook and an infectious chorus, it’s the album’s best track and one of the band’s most aggressive songs to date.
Aside from the Iron Maiden-influenced galloping basslines that have always defined Lancer’s sound, I also get some serious Blind Guardian vibes from the chorus melody on “Freedom Eaters,” which, as far as I’m concerned, means it must be doing at least something right. I suppose I could sit here and name-drop a few more legendary bands, but the overarching fact of the matter is that Mastery is simply a more varied, entertaining album than any of Lancer’s previous material, at least partly thanks to the influence of their forefathers. Even “World Unknown,” a dreaded power metal ballad, is surprisingly inspired and distinguishes itself as one of the record’s better tracks.
Lancer have never shied away from epic, progressive songwriting, as the outstanding “Aton” from Second Storm most clearly exemplifies, but Mastery represents an improvement in that department. Though there’s admittedly nothing quite as good as “Aton,” the progressive elements are spread throughout the entirety of the record, adding depth and memorability to even more straightforward tracks like “Widowmaker.” Just as the melodic guitar work at the tail end of that track turns a good song into a great one, the instrumental portion in the midsection of closer “Envy of the Gods” is probably the best moment the entire album has to offer. While these individual moments may seem relatively insignificant by themselves, they are but single elements of a songwriting trend that defines the album as a whole and separates it from many of Lancer’s more predictable contemporaries.
Mastery does have its share of flaws–“Future Millenia” probably should’ve been swapped with the superior “Freedom Eaters” or “Widowmaker” in the track listing and I do wish frontman Isak Stenvall, talented as he may be, would deliver a more varied performance–but it’s without a doubt one of the better power metal records I’ve heard in the last few years. Sure, as is the case with just about anything associated with the genre, it’s a bit on the cheesy side, but there’s nothing here that’s outwardly distracting or particularly lame. Much like Second Storm, Mastery avoids many of the genre’s oft-ridiculed pitfalls, making for a more pleasant and balanced listening experience. It’s a stellar major label debut, one that successfully expands upon Lancer’s instrumental and influential palette and further solidifies the Swedes as one of the scene’s rising stars.