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Crystal Age was one of many bands in the 90s Swedish death metal scene; one of those bands that formed, had one release and then quickly broke up when success failed to manifest. Seeing that this album was released in 1995 by a Gothenburg based band, one might think that Far Beyond Divine Horizons was another In Flames inspired album with songs full of Maiden-esque twin guitar harmonies. Rather surprisingly however, this is not the case. This album is instead an intense and frantic piece of mostly unmelodic death metal, borrowing from classic late 80s death bands such as Morbid Angel and Pestilence. The band also adds a slight technical flair to their riffs and song structures, which, while being nowhere as crazy as bands like Atheist and Nile, still adds a bit of spark to the songs. On top of all this is a somewhat vaguely defined, recurring theme of outer space, showing mostly on the cover art and in select sections of the lyrics and song interludes. It is nowhere as extensive as on Nocturnus’s albums, but used in rather small touches, seemingly to add a bit of mystique.
The band lineup is a mix of newcomers and somewhat familiar faces from the Swedish death metal scene. On vocals and rhythm guitar is Oscar Dronjak, formerly of Ceremonial Oath (another one-off death metal act from Gothenburg). The bass is handled by Fredrik Larsson, whom with Dronjak would later move on to the much famous Hammerfall. On the lead guitar is the rather mysterious Moses Jonathan Elfström, who seemingly never played on any album again after this release. Rounding up the lineup is drummer Hans Nilsson, who played in Liars In Wait, the band that released the very good EP Spiritually Uncontrolled Art a couple of years earlier. The appearance of Nilsson is actually interesting, as Liars In Wait is in fact a very good reference point for the sound of this album, whether intentional or not.
When listening to Far Beyond Divine Horizons, the most notable thing is that the production quality and instrument playing are really good, and a huge improvement over Dronjak’s previous band. Ceremonial Oath’s 1993 album The Book Of Truth had a rather muddy production, and, at times, quite sloppy playing. In contrast, Far Beyond Divine Horizons sounds slick and fresh. All instruments sound crystal clear and have plenty of space in the mix to breathe. The members of Crystal Age are also much more proficient on their instruments, perfectly executing the tight intensity needed for the songs.
The truly positive thing about this album is the guitar work. It is not only tight and precise, but also somewhat original. While of course being nothing revolutionary like Tony Iommi or Eddie Van Halen, the rhythms and leads on this album are at least creative enough to make you raise your eyebrows once in a while. Songs like “Crystals Of The Wise” and “Star Destroyer” feature some clever riffs that will stick to your head, and Elfström’s lead guitar work incorporates a lot of interesting phrasing and unexpected oriental scales.
Unfortunately, the instruments are backed up by a rather weak vocal performance. In fact, the vocals are actually quite horrible. While Dronjak may have some talent in the songwriting and rhythm guitar department, his vocals are completely atrocious on this album. It is difficult to describe the vocal sound in words, but they have this weird high-pitched, hysterical tone to them which blends poorly with the rest of the music. Dronjak’s vocals in Ceremonial Oath were admittedly also rather substandard, but I found them to work much better there. On The Book Of Truth, the cheap production and the slower, doomier pace made the vocals at least sound as part of the whole music experience, whereas on Far Beyond Divine Horizons, the clear production and tight musicianship immediately expose how limited Dronjak is as a vocalist. To make matters worse, he barely articulates any words when singing, nor are the vocals phrased in a rhythmic way, making it almost impossible to understand the lyrics. It almost seems as if the band prioritized the music, and just tried to sneak in as many words as possible anytime Dronjak had a slightly easier guitar part to play. In fact, when listening to Far Beyond Divine Horizons, I had an experience that I never before have had with a music album: I listened to the songs with the lyrics sheet in front of me, and on certain parts, I still could not follow the lyrics because of how unintelligibly Dronjak’s singing was! The vocals are definitely the album’s weakest point, and often, they sound like an afterthought.
A few comments should also be made about the lyrical content. Far Beyond Divine Horizons is a concept album, with a story that continues from song to song. After reading through the lyrics, I was actually more impressed than I first thought I would be. While being nothing overly astonishing, the story actually has some interesting philosophical concepts, with a few twist and turns that I did not expect. I must say I do applaud the band for lyrically attempting something deeper and more complex rather than just sticking to cliché topics about blood, gore and zombies.
There is one major problem however, and that is that this album does not exactly flow like a concept album. When I think of concept albums, I think of elements like recurring themes and melody lines, and music that actually adds to the story narrative, for example by shifting between tense and relaxed moments depending on the current scene in the plot. On Far Beyond Divine Horizons, we instead get ten tracks of the same super fast, frenetic, unmelodic death metal, with nothing that ties the songs together as a larger composition. Add to this the aforementioned intelligible vocals, which make it almost impossible to understand the story unless you have the lyrics sheet. While I do like the overall lyrical approach the band took on this album, it seems the actual recorded music is a very poor medium to narrate a full story. I almost wish they would not have attempted a concept album and instead would just have written some standard death metal lyrics.
It should also be noted that the recurring space theme adds very little to both the music and the story, and frankly just seems out of place. The only reason I can think of is that the band imagined this story to take place in a Star Wars like universe, where technology and ancient magic arts live side by side. However, apart from the spaceship on the cover art, some science fiction-like names in the lyrics, and a few samples and keyboard effects used as interludes in a few songs, the music does not reflect this type of approach very well. In fact, I think that if the cover art would portray a wizard in a castle, and the space samples would be replaced by Medieval-sounding keyboard effects, it would not have changed a thing.
Summing up my experience with this album, I can only say that Far Beyond Divine Horizons is a rather strange animal. It is made up of various components that could be somewhat effective on their own, but do not go well together. It seems the band did not know what they really wanted to do, almost as if each member came up with concepts and ideas on their own, and the band then tried to put everything in the pot. Far Beyond Divine Horizons remains an album mainly for people who are interested in the more obscure releases of the Swedish death metal scene of the 90s. It is definitely not a bad death metal album, but I wouldn’t call it a forgotten gem either. I give it a spin every now and then, but I probably wouldn’t put it in my list of top 100 death metal releases. I give the album praise for the somewhat creative guitar work, tight musicianship and clear production, and also a few additional points for some of the ideas of the story. The negative aspects are the poor vocals and all the incoherent elements. In a way, it is actually a bit sad, because this band had great potential. If they had continued on, stayed more focused when writing and recording their follow up albums, and had acquired a new lead singer with a powerful voice who created more rhythmic and dynamic vocals, Crystal Age could actually have developed into something really interesting. This was, however, not meant to be. The band folded, and we were left only with this album, sitting there alone on the shelf like a lost star in a vast universe.
Let me say this now, the lyrics sound like Star Wars mixed with the Zelda games, with a drunken Lord Of The Rings fan thrown in. They are pretty interesting, just be prepared for something a little unusual. ;)
The vocals are a sort of weird higher-pitched than average growl. It's understandable after a listen or two...but it's just not that great.
The guitar, oh damn do I love it. Very interesting and slick riff work as well as killer solos. Easily some of the best guitar shredding I've heard on a death album.
The drums are very fun to listen to, from the above-average pounding double bass that is intelligently placed to the good snare and cymbal work. Not your average rolling double bass while hitting the snare every beat style of drumming, and it really brings the quality level up.
The bass is a little quiet on the album, but you can hear Fredrick Larsson playing pretty quickly along with their dual guitar attack. Very accurate with the rest of the instruments.
Act I: The Proclamation (Tracks 1 -2)
Track 1, Far Beyond Divine Horizons, is the longest track, clocking in at 5 minutes. Things begin with a cool little growl, then breaks into heavy intrumental attack, complemented by a high pitched howl. Things settle down into their first chorus 15 seconds or so into it, with double bass and tom tolls really giving things a good feel. Not even 8 seconds of lyrics and we're into more interesting guitar switch-ups and VERY good drumming sounding straight out of a prog band. Reallly good solo comes in, followed by some blast beats, then into really fast and mesmerizing guitar. Vocals are sharp and harsh and really compliment the bands playing style. They deliver some more interesting solos and pounding drum n bass and eventually the song comes to a close.
Track 2, Fortune And Glory, features none other than the voice of fucking Darth Vader at the end! Bahahah, but Star Wars aside, this is my 3rd favorite song on the album. Starts out pretty fast and heavy, then breaks into some blast beats and vocals. Lots of double bass in this one. Around 1:40 they repeat this cool riff in a slower paced section, then into more of the usual pounding away. Just a really good headbanger with some of the most well executed vocals on the album.
Act II: Being Lead Astray (Tracks 3-5)
After recovering from the laughter of hearing Darth Vader in song #2, track 3, The Beauty Of Evil, opens right up with some really cool guitar parts. Their drummer does a cool thing where he alternates between bass pedals and toms for a minute, then back into pounding double bass. Around 1:40 they do a kickass high-pitched guitar thing that probably has some technical term for it I'm too stupid to know, then some pretty aggressive vocals, especially the howled vocals about 2:20. Closes with that cool guitar thing and then we move on to.....
....Track 4, Son Of Time. Begins a little slower with a weird guitar riff playing and slower drumming that sounds like a standard rock beat with some more technical cymbal work thrown in, then about 40 seconds we break into some heavy playing :). Not much really stands out about this song besides a kickass growl half-way through it and a groovy vocal section later on. Oh yeah, a cool high pitcheds olo thingy at the end. :P
Windwalker, song 5, is heavy and melodic sounding at first, then 20 seconds into it they do this thing that will make you shoot a load. Their drummer pounds the bass drum one each note, like duh, duh duh, then after 8 notes break into double bass and it's one of the coolest sounding things ont he whole album. Good percussion and guitar, then a little bit of a switch-up with some cool snare rolls and then things slow down a little. A minute into things we get a spiffy solo that sounds really good towards its end. They do that really cool drum thing again I talked about at the end and that's it. Short and decent instrumental track with a badass drum thingy.
Act III: Deities Overthrown (Tracks 6-7)
Track 6 begins with a short drum solo of him alternating between snare and tom while playing some double bass, then really weird but cool sounding guitar. Half a minute into it we get one of the best growls you'll ever hear, then some lighter guitars and heavy drums and bass. Short vocal section, then a nice little instrumental part. More vocals, guitars start getting more interesting. Next vocal sectin, we get a few instrumental pauses while Oscar delivers some of their fantasy lyrics and it works out really well. Dspite how repetitious the first 2 and a half minutes are it turns out really good. Later on we get what is probably the best solo on the album, it's really interesting, especially considering the excellent percussion int he background. They end it with some cool blast beating and that concludes my second favorite songs off FBDH.
On Blooded Wings, song 7, is about some creature named Skyhawk. Whatever, they do some really lyrics at the beginning where he gets some backing vocals and it sounds great. Then some great guitar that eventually changes pace a minute or so into the song. They deliver some cool distortion effects and good solos, some pauses with drum and bass while their guitrists pick away at the string, then into another one of those cool vocals sections where Oscar gets some backup. It ends with a superb instrumental section where they use some sort of picking techique, that again, most likely has a specific term I'm too lazy to learn. The last 10 seconds will give any seasoned metalhead a boner. :)
ACT IV: Rage Of Vinication (Tracks 8-9)
Tempt Not Thy Maker begins with a really soft and pleasant bass solo that lasts for 25 seconds, then into one of the fastest and heaviest moments ont he whole album. Double bass up your ass with excellent riff-work. A few vocals then things go out of control. Kick ass riffs here, furious bass over there, pounding double bass and a drummer who sounds like he is ADD and has a snare drum fetish! We get the coolest vocals on the whole album in this track along with a kickass growl that fades right into a solo. Good job, that kicked some ass! The solo keep sgoing though! It gets all high pitched and fast, like Yngwie Malmsteen given a shot of Death Metal. The end is just the standard heavy playing and the track closes, for what is my personal favorite song on the album.....
...Star Destrroyer! Begins with high-pitched, fast picking guitar that sounds badass. Next, a cool growl and real heavy playing. Break into a vocal section where the bass player really shines. Cool growls again! Madness! Good change ups with the drumming, going from perfectly executed blast beats then pounding doule bass, then back and forth. This is such a badass song, the ending is one of death metals best moments.
ACT V: Conclusion, The War Endeth (Track 10)
And Luke defeated Lord Vader and the ewoks lived happily ever after. :)
Not really, but this does start out with some goofy violin type opening, but it sounds really good and it's atmospheric and all that good stuff. Then they deliver the harshest vocals ont he album followed by somer eally cool guitar and heavy double bass. The solo on this song is odd, it starts really slow then goes to fast shredding, has a pause, then has some more faster stuff, slow a little, then fast again. I know you're probably confused but you'll understand if you hear it. :) Really good song that features some of the more technical drumming on the album. They use a cool sound sample at the end. It literally ends with a bang! :D
Far Beyond Divine Horizons is an excellent album. I highly recommend it to ANY fan of death metal. It's one of the heaviest albums I've heard and features much more technical playing than bands are using now, 9 years later. Despite some songs sharing similarities, it does have good variety, and sweet jesus do their guitar players kickass! Their drummer will gain a soft spot in any prog metal fans heart. I marked off for certain songs sounding a little too similar, the vocals getting uninteresting after a while and the lyrics being a little goofy and hard to follow. It deserves every bit of the score I gave it though. Now go, go off and buy!