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Every time there is an important band that makes the decision to switch from their alleged principle vocalist to one of equal prominence, I always get this strong sense of déjà vu, as if I’m reliving the entire experience of discovering Black Sabbath post-Ozzy. There is naturally a fair share of loyalists who cling to the notion that the band ceases to be when their renowned singer disappears from the fold, but most of these types never even bothered to listen to the Dio years of Sabbath, let alone the brilliant work done with Tony Martin, lest their minds would be instantly changed by the equal, if not superior work done by these lesser known figures. Vocally the contrast between Lowe and Messiah is very similar to that of Dio and Ozzy, but unlike with Rainbow and Sabbath being very different creatures during the 70s, the common genre shared by Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus makes this vocal transition between this album and its predecessor much easier to accept for the otherwise orthodox doom metal faithful.
“King Of The Grey Islands” is interesting in its approach of not trying to impress, yet simultaneously being quite impressive. The songs are presented in a very methodical manner, putting forth traditional structures and emphasizing strong ideas worth the constant repetition that is peculiar to doom metal, as well as ones that are conducive to the dark atmosphere required for the desired effect. Right from the first few seconds of “Prologue”, where a basic clean guitar line reflects the plain yet haunting imagery depicted on the album cover, you can tell that a peculiarly dark musical picture will emerge. But the actual experience is not quite the mere sorrowful wailing that some tend to pigeonhole the genre with, but a multifaceted sort of darkness that can be fatalistic, angry, spiteful, or the more expected mix of hopelessness and depression. This all combines with a sort of mysticism that the band has always carried in their lyrical subjects to create something that is very distinctive yet accessible. Comparisons to the whole of this album could be made to Sabbath’s “Dehumanizer” and “Cross Purposes” in a sense, although the final product is definitely its own beast.
The individual chapters of this book of an album fall into two distinct categories, namely the catchy melodic sort and the epic atmospheric numbers. “Emperor Of The Void” and “Of Stars And Smoke” are the best examples of the shorter and slightly more accessible songs put forth here, putting a good deal of emphasis on melodic choruses and muddy yet easy to follow riff lines. The latter one has an utterly spellbinding, yet short guitar solo with a tone that almost perfectly mirrors Craig Goldie’s brilliant sound on Dio’s “Magica”. Among the longer, more drawn out songs, there is a trend where the longer these guys tend to go the better their product becomes. The dark and droning recitation that is “Destroyer” departs from the mystical/fantasy based subjects for vile depictions of villainous schemes, perfectly reflected in Lowe’s angry yet still very melodic vocal interpretation. “Embracing The Styx”, which is my personal favorite of all the songs on here, perfectly demonstrates that if you come up with the right combination of notes for a riff and put the right atmospheric touches on it with the rest of the arrangement; you can repeat the hell out of it, vary it very little, and yet still keep it interesting. The principle intro riff, when combined with the rumble of the double bass drums, create this sort of horrific atmosphere quite similar to what the river Styx may have appeared to anyone viewing it.
When you get right down to it, there is very little on here to criticize or to want for. The only thing that might improve this is a little more emphasis on the lead guitar, as there is a disproportionate amount of repetitive atmospheric sections that are either presented without a leading instrument, or take the occasion to focus on Lowe’s vocals. At times, the album seems to be mostly vocally driven than anything else, and the solos, though very well realized, tend to not last very long. It’s understandable to take this approach when considering Lowe’s very expressive and versatile voice, but it also has the detrimental effect of sometimes making the music come off plainer sounding than it necessarily should. Perhaps it’s my own addiction to hearing slow melodic metal by the likes of Axel Rudi Pell, who puts greater emphasis on leads than he does riffs or vocals, but the leads on here are expressive and interesting enough to merit a little more attention paid to them.
This album is a slight step up from the “self-titled” one that preceded it, but people just discovering this band would be well served by going earlier into their catalog first, preferably to their 80s material. Fans of Solitude Aeturnus will probably take to this pretty easily as it’s similarities to this band are comparable to the ones between Dio and the albums Sabbath put out with the same front man. Candlemass has an uncanny ability for adapting its sound to fit a new vocalist, as shown in their all but impeccable back catalog, but hopefully Robert Lowe will be able to juggle both projects for a while and there will be more where this came from.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on September 26, 2008.