Review Summary: Black Crown Initiate avoid the progressive death roadblocks and craft one of the biggest surprises of the year.
In a time when progressive death metal is more the subject of snobbish ridicule than admiration, Black Crown Initiate have completely left themselves open to mockery as they drop their debut EP Song of The Crippled Bull
. All the hallmarks for which progressive death metal is collectively derided are found right here. Grandiose instrumentation? Check. Forays into softer “atmospheric” sections? Check. Alternation between clean and harsh vocals? Check. Squeaky clean, modern production? Check. What’s more is that it’s so uncompromising in its execution. Normally, you’d expect a newcomer to the progressive death metal scene to tip-toe across the line between virtuosity and reservation, but not these guys. Already content with their sound, Black Crown Initiate pull no punches during this onslaught of technical skill and ambitious song-writing. But what’s more impressive than their confidence and resolution is that they managed to pull it off in such a sublime and surprisingly accessible manner.
Song of The Crippled Bull
opens smoothly with delicate guitar work and some tasteful, unpolished clean singing reminiscent of a younger Mikael Akerfeldt. Before long, the death metal elements kick in and the band embarks on an unbroken journey of ferocity and dynamism. The guitar work is particularly impressive on account of its sheer diversity. Incorporating the usual hyper-quick tremolo strumming and melodious tech riffage characteristic of progressive death, the guitar work also extends into various other styles while maintaining a cohesive edge. The softer, more sorrowful sections compliment the death metal elements perfectly, borrowing melodies and rhythms and stripping them back to create a stable but contrasting continuation that extends throughout the entire record’s runtime. James Dorton possesses an excellent range and crucially sounds good on both sides of the spectrum, but though his harsh vocals are impressive, they aren’t exactly remarkable. What makes his vocal performance so enthralling is the interplay between his clean singing and the guitarists. For example, towards the latter half of the opening track, the guitars fall back into a passage of power chords while the clean vocals take centre stage, only for the lead guitar to imitate the vocal melody and create an impressive climax.
The production, courtesy of Carson Slovak, is extremely impressive considering the band is unsigned, rivalling the clarity sported by some of the genre’s biggest acts. However, while the clarity allows you to absorb the EP’s details with relative ease, the mixing still saps some of the vibrancy from the would-be-more euphoric moments. The climax to “The Mountain Top” is the best example of the mix stifling the crescendo effects, as every instrument rises to their respective maximums, the result is a little bit messy as opposed to the organised chaos the was presumably intended. Minor qualm aside, what makes this release such an immersive experience isn’t its instrumental complexity, but its overall cohesion. The EP is best taken in one hit and thought of as a single song, as evidenced by the opening vocal melody reappearing – albeit in a more exalted form – in the final track. The same case applies the latter clean section of the opener, which reappears twice in “The Mountain Top” as the chorus. What Black Crown Initiate have done isn’t the usual progressive death cliché in which a melody or hook is lifted from earlier in the record and lumped in at the end, giving a false impression of it seeming
connected. Throughout the EP, motifs reappear and are reinterpreted as the record progresses, creating a seamless, uninterrupted but constantly engaging listen.
Song of The Crippled Bull
is one of the biggest surprises of the year, not simply because such a new band has shown such a rock-solid musical vision, but how they defied the genre limitations. A twenty-minute song by an unsigned progressive death act formed only a year ago? It had all the makings of a disaster waiting to happen. By virtue of their methodical craftsmanship, Black Crown Initiate have well and truly established themselves as a force to reckoned with. Watch this space.