Review Summary: This is why people don't take black metal seriously.
Carach Angren is the Dutch black metal band known for doing what every teenage black metal band out there looking to make a name for themselves wishes they had thought of first. Every single one of Carach Angren’s releases, including their 2004 demo, is a concept album based on a ghost story. While certainly an interesting idea, when a group of musicians decides to undertake such an ambitious concept they must realize that there is a fine line between coming across as genuinely scary and coming across as a total joke. Concept albums as a whole can be tricky to pull off, and making an album with as specific a concept as telling a story with the intent to scare the listener can be especially difficult. Unfortunately for Carach Angren, Death Came Through a Phantom Ship embodies everything that is wrong with black metal today, failing completely in making both a well-composed work of music and an album that communicates their concept in an effective manner.
Death Came Through a Phantom Ship, as you may have already guessed from the band’s nationality, is a concept album based on the famous Dutch legend of the Flying Dutchman. It begins with a pseudo-creepy introduction track filled with minor-key keyboard melodies and a recording of a sailor sending a message to a mysterious ship he meets at sea. Unfortunately for this hapless sailor, the only person on board able to receive his message is the ghost of Captain Vanderdecken, infamous captain of the Flying Dutchman. The metal kicks in with Vanderdecken’s response, a foreboding “JIJ ZULT VERZUIPEN IN JE EIGEN BLOED!” This is Dutch for “You will drown in your own blood!”
Sound cheesy enough? I hope not, because Carach Angren is just getting started. This album should go down in history as being one of the cheesiest albums of all time. Just reading the song titles will give you a good idea of what is to be expected from this album. Tracks two and three, which when read together are titled “The Sighting Is a Portent of Doom…and the Consequence Macabre”, expand the story of the sailor by explaining how the sighting of the Flying Dutchman drives him to insanity. The man returns home after seeing the ship to murder his wife and daughter before taking his own life with a shotgun. This could have been a pretty creepy concept, if Carach Angren didn’t write such terrible lyrics.
For some unexplainable reason, Carach Angren insists on playing the one genre of popular music where rhyming lyrics is absolutely unnecessary and including rhymes in every song. This results in some unbelievably lame writing. Here is an excerpt from track two, in which the sailor talks about the messages he receives from the Flying Dutchman: “[I hear] these voices cursing my goddamn name. Hell, is this witchcraft or am I insane?” Unnecessary swear words aside, one would think there would be a better way to communicate that line; maybe one that doesn’t include ending in a pseudo-rhyme. The lyrics only get worse. Taken from the same song is this gem: “The temperature suddenly dropped; my great-grandfathers clock, just ticking, now stopped.” Carach Angren’s lyrics read like they were taken from a bad rap album.
There are many more examples of terrible lyrics on this album, far too many to be addressed here. Track six does deserve mention though, for it stands as one of the cheesiest and most unintentionally funny songs ever written. It had me laughing out loud, and is the only part of this record saving it from an “Awful” rating. It is the album’s only highlight.
Moving on to the actual music on the album, there really isn’t anything here that a fan of symphonic black metal hasn’t heard already. Musically, every song is based around the typical spooky keyboard melodies, tremolo-picked guitars, and blast beats, with a strong emphasis on the spooky keyboards. Strange for a black metal release, the guitar is actually buried pretty low in the mix, making it hard to pick out any melodies on the rare occasion the guitarist plays something interesting.
Besides the uncreative musicianship, Death Came Through a Phantom Ship also suffers musically from featuring far too few instrumental breaks. The vocals are featured heavily on every song, never giving the instrumentalists a chance to show what they’re capable of. Every time an interesting instrumental part comes along, the vocalist jumps in and steals the spotlight. Yes, this is a concept album, and it is understandable that the band wants the vocals to be the focus. But the strongest concept albums have always been the ones that are able to use the music to compliment the vocals and lyrics, creating an effective atmosphere for the album. This makes an album an actual piece of musical art as opposed to a poetry reading.
Addressing the album’s vocals directly, they are unfortunately just another weak spot. Vocalist Seregor delivers uninspired raspy vocals that can be best described as frail. There is no substance, no power or emotion behind the vocals on this album, and for an album that is supposed to be frightening this serves as a major disappointment. Although you can understand every word, this is pretty much the one album in extreme metal where the clarity of the vocals is not a benefit, for already-mentioned reasons.
It really is a shame to give this album such a low rating, but the terrible writing and poor vocal performance really is unforgivable. Everything about this album just screams “We’re trying way too hard”. Whether you’re looking at the unintentionally funny album artwork or listening to the cliché Cradle of Filth-esque keyboard melodies that pervade every single song, the album just comes across as a joke, a good idea performed by an inept group of musicians. It almost makes me feel bad for slamming this album so hard, just for the simple fact that these guys really are trying. It breaks your heart, because you can tell that this is sincere music. It’s just really bad music.
If you’re thirteen years old and still think face paint, harsh vocals, and ghost stories filled with swear words are scary, I encourage you to check this album out. For everyone else looking for quality symphonic black metal, your time would be better spent listening to Emperor, Graveworm, and early Arcturus. Even mid/late-career Dimmu Borgir is a better listen than this.