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Exit both guitar men, vocalist left as the sole original member. There's some good cause for worry for ya going into this one, right? Sure, the 'The Age of Hell' was made with half the band crew of the album prior to it, and it did just fine, but this time they lost one of the band's main creative forces in form of axeman Rob Arnold. That also raises the question of whether the band should even continue under the same moniker, whatever new talent may enter in his stead. Can the new configuration, including half the guys from Dååth, really deliver a product that satisfies the world's hunger for more Chimaira?
Luckily, this is neither the separate entity nor the soulless clone that I braced myself for. As can be expected, it's somewhat of a different beast, but also one that holds an intimate understanding of the band's fundamentals. Still groove, still a hardcore edge, still merging various other genres and somehow making sense with them all. Keyboards and electronics also continue to be integral to Chimaira's sound, providing a layer of atmosphere somewhat unusual for bands of their ilk. However, there's also clear telling of the new line-up having put their personal stamp on things. The guitar work for one is more technical and progressive and is less rooted in older metal styles like thrash. Get a load of the frenzied, dissonant lead bit early on in "The Machine", sprawling with Jeff Loomis-like boldness and energy. The drumming fares much the same, with some creative and less straight choices such as the fast hi-hat in "I Despise". "The time has come to reboot the machine" go the self-referencing lyrics to the opening song, making the movie term "gritty reboot" come to mind as a way of describing the album. It's a mostly new cast and crew doing a new take on an old property, and 'Crown of Phantoms' indeed cranks up darkness and aggression to a degree not seen since their 2000 EP. No ballady stuff like "Beyond the Grave" on the last album (save for an interlude cut), barely any clean vocals.
The grittiness also comes in form of the production, which is a bit shocking compared to the slick, finely tuned character of old. It's no demo by any means, but the drums seem way less sampled and the instruments are mixed with each other in a more brutish manner, making for a decidedly rawer and muddier presentation. After a short period of adjustment, I find that it's actually done with a lot of skill and artistic vision, resonating quite nicely while still exuding a spontaneous, "just plug in and go" vibe, almost like a window into the band's rehearsal space. Again, it's a studio job alright, no doubt with plenty of labor put into it, but the stripped down feeling is there nonetheless. What's important is that the production absolutely serves the songs, expertly written and brick-shittingly heavy as is somehow retained from the old regime.
Yes, I considered going with the obvious "All that's left is Mark Hunter" for the title. Then I actually heard the album, and could not be happier to have been proven wrong. 'Crown of Phantoms' provides an interesting, challenging change of pace, one that keeps things fresh and exciting while still giving fans their expected biennial Chimaira fix. In a long stagnant scene where most of the remaining players keep crapping out crap as an excuse to go on tour, go get yourself a taste of what truly heartfelt, visionary metalcore/groove metal sounds like. My new pick for Chimaira's best, I think.