Album Review: Black Crown Initiate - Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape
Reviewed by CJ Claesson
By default, progressive death metal suggests dynamic songwriting qualities, as opposed to the more static meatgrinder approach of bands sans the prefix. Since their 2013 debut EP 'Song of the Crippled Bull', Black Crown Initiate has been producing an extremely rich palette of intense, demanding yet beautiful pieces of progressive music, masterfully intertwined with all the forceful and brutal comings of death metal. Almost four years have passed since their critically acclaimed, fan-favorite ‘Selves We Cannot Forgive’ saw the light of day and their fans, myself included, have been yearning for more ever since.
According to the Reading, Pennsylvania progressive powerhouse, ‘Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape’ is the best creation they have ever made, and I can only nod in agreement. Reunified with original guitarist Ethan McKenna, whose time with the band dates back to aforementioned EP, and now signed to the mammoth label Century Media Records, the band embarks on a new chapter of their already immense career.
Rapid emotional turns enforced by the “good vs. evil” vocals and dynamic musical changes have become the coat of arms for Black Crown Initiate and ‘Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape’ continues on that note. Overall the album is a somber embrace which cataclysmically projects the listener into a journey of sonic aesthetics, brute force and expressive intensity. Ok, I hear you, that sounds like a lot. But what I appreciate about the album is that it doesn’t come across as complicated for the sake of being complicated, which is a critique I often have of progressive death metal acts. All elements are complimentary to the sheer brutality of James Dorton’s bestial vocals and musical gut-punch delivered by the band which ultimately makes Black Crown Initiate top tier in their genre.
Already in the opening track ‘Invitation’ we’re presented with quintessential traits of the band. The calm intro - which is a continuous component from the previous releases - presents mastermind Andy Thomas alone, solely equipped with an acoustic guitar and his voice. It doesn’t take long for the dreamlike atmosphere to be abruptly shattered by James’ vicious chanting and heavy distorted guitars. My mind wanders to ‘Reinkaos’-era DISSECTION, but the push and pull of the clean and growled vocals keeps my mind on track. Following the strong opening are ‘Son of War’ and ‘Trauma Bonds’. The former, although being riddled with complex guitar work and rhythms has a light, almost levitating quality to it. The attention-grabbing progressions, which run throughout the record, won’t let you nod off even for a second and will keep you on the edge of your seat. Originally released as a single in 2019, ‘Years in Frigid Light’ has been rerecorded and restructured for the album. In my interview with Andy (which you can read here), I asked if he thought ‘Years in Frigid Light’ is a masterpiece. He responded humbly: “it’s a cool song” and pretty much left it at that, but to me it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. Brutal? Check. Progressive? Check. Beautiful? Double-check. Andy’s goose bump inducing vocal performance is incredible. Complete with elaborate bass tapping, performed by Nick Shaw, delicate melody lines and ending on mysterious throat singing, the song is undeniably a masterpiece. If you’re only ever going to listen to one Black Crown Initiate song in your life, make sure it’s that one. But then go back and listen to the rest. The unsettling throat singing continues onto the following track ‘Bellow’. Even though it’s not a song I would put by itself on my running playlist, it certainly fits as a continuation of the ambience ‘Years In Frigid Light’ left off with. It’s menacing and mystical and I’m picturing a Mongolian throat singer trapped in his own grave. Black Crown Initiate are not afraid of incorporating different styles, techniques and inspirations in their music, which will keep making the band unique and interesting for years to come.
The tranquil intro of ‘Death Comes In Reverse’ eases me back into the progressive journey. Although the death metal has been slightly toned down in the second half of the album, ‘Sun of War’ delivers a burst of ruthless intensity. Flying like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Black Crown Initiate continues with ‘Holy Silence’ which arguably is the most bona fide prog metal song on the album. It’s a captivating piece which allows space for all the instruments and vocal arrangements to breathe. The multiple layers of the song are incredibly well-balanced, from James’ gut-wrenching screams further back in the production to Nick’s jazzy bass grooves. The acoustic guitar towards the end of the song ties back to the beginning of the record and the ensuing guitar solo is an immaculate crescendo. Although vastly different styles, I haven’t been infatuated with a solo like that since I first heard Janick Gers’ part in the solo on ‘Blood Brothers’. Very powerful stuff. ‘He Is the Path’ closes the album with an incorporation of the initial melody line from the opening track. It allows a reflection on the past 50-minute progressive death metal clinic put on by Black Crown Initiate.
Recorded by Carson Slovak and Grant McFarland (Rivers Of Nihil, August Burns Red, Lorna Shore), ‘Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape’ exhibits all the extraordinary qualities of the band. Although jokingly labelled as “dumb dumbs” by Andy, Black Crown Initiate is packed with talented musicians, and together with the careful orchestration by mastermind Andy they’ve yielded an incredibly consistent and exciting album. If it takes another three or four years to produce the follow-up, so be it. This will keep fans busy for a while, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this will be considered a classic further down the progressive death metal line.
‘Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape’ out via Century Media Records on August 7th.