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Here is an impressive album of psychedelic doom metal by an English band (The Wounded Kings) that demonstrates how a particular band's style with all its limitations as well as talent can perfectly complement a theme of past and future apocalypses. The Wounded Kings play very heavy downtuned guitars with an emphasis on riffing, together with rather muted percussion, all through which bolts of brightly and searingly hot acidic day-glo lead guitar tones pass laser-like with an intensity that would blind mortals if they could see them. In places the music bleeds at the edges an unnaturally radioactive scarlet sheen. Everything is covered over in a bleached-out psychedelic haze which accounts for the tone quality of the lead guitar solos: they conjure up visions of a hot sun over a parched landscape, blinding light rays reflected back at you by white-hot sand. This haze affects the singing as well, turning it into something unreal, angelic perhaps but very remote and not altogether benevolent: a messenger of hot white light in vaguely human form, sent from the gods with a warning of terrible disaster.
And the message is pretty gloomy: the album is as much predictive of future apocalypse as it may be a retelling of the fall of Atlantis or of Mesopotamia. Nature itself may take an active part in this apocalypse but there is also the promise that Atlantis will rise again. The influence of American psychic seer Edgar Cayce, who predicted some major geological rearrangements around the North Atlantic Ocean during the late 20th century, and of the British science-fiction writer Julian Jay Savarin, among others cited in the album sleeve, may be detected here. Smirk at Cayce's bad timing if you like but some of the redesign may still get done if the doomsday scenario of a massive methane gas explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a mega-tsunami being discussed on the Internet at this time of writing, actually happens.
Intro track "The Swirling Mist" paints the scene with near-droning bass-heavy riffs and washes of higher-pitched tone that have a nauseous sliding edge. The instrumental passage in the song's second half is a delirious descent into a mass of encircling, swirling serpentine and dark-sparkling lead guitar swooshes. "Baptism of Atlantis" is a slightly more definite construction with strong repetitive riffing and lead guitar siren calls that pass over into another, rather less interesting plane of existence with tinkling piano and a repeating vocal refrain. After a short piano lament, we are plunged into the shimmering despair of "The Sons of Belial", a creepy, near-cold realm where the singing takes on a silvery, wraith-like quality among slashing riffs and sinister melodies. As with "Baptism ...", the second half of the song is different from its first half with an extended lead guitar solo that sounds rather retro-1970's with notes that probably should be less well-defined and more bleeding into each other than they are.
"Deathless Echo" is an all-instrumental lament dominated by organ-like drone: to me it seems a bit heavy-handed and makes the track one-dimensional. It doesn't last very long and "Invocation of the Ancients" gradually comes into view like a mirage with shifting, vibrating effects that mutate into slow riffs twisting their way up and down a three-note musical scale. The angel of doom is already receding into the heavens, looking down on the burning world with no great regret or feeling for its inhabitants. Layers of lead guitar replicate the many fatal rings of fire that embrace the planet while the bass and drums forge ahead to the end.
All too soon the concept work ends when it only seems to have started and got off the ground. I'd have liked to hear more of this music - doom metal is something that I feel can't be restricted to thirty or forty minutes, especially when the music is dominated by long droning riffs as this album is. The songs are all structured to the same template: the lyrics and riffs tend to bunch up in the first half of the song and the second half is nearly all-instrumental with less definite melodies and riffing, and lead guitar becoming the main instrument. This does reflect the theme of the album: built-up civilisation eventually succumbs to nature and human folly, and chaos results, so I assume this isn't necessarily something the band will repeat on the next album. The singing isn't especially varied in range or emotion but it's exactly right for this kind of washed-out apocalyptic doom where the vocalist is in part a narrator of a disaster that humanity has brought down on itself. The short instrumental tracks could have been a bit longer and have more layers of ambient effects to give them a sense of depth and maybe hidden power and menace so that they are better able to hold up against the long tracks with their powerful rhythms.
The kind of doom metal featured here is usually a slow and ponderous riff-heavy beast comparable to early Cathedral. Music like this needs powerful drumming and here the percussion isn't anything special, it's actually quite low in the mix. At the time of recording, TWK were a duo with one person, Steve Mills, on drums as well as guitar, bass, keyboards, some vocals, mixing and being sound engineer and producer so he clearly likes getting hands-on. If it hadn't all worked out, just think what Atlantean doom he might've dealt himself. The album perhaps would have sounded a lot more robust if the band had a third person just concentrating on the skins but this would have the effect of showing up the flimsiness of the short pieces.
With its imperfections, the album on the whole is still a wondrous being to behold. I can see how the bleached-out production covers over the shortcomings of having just two musicians working on everything that a three-piece band at least should be doing but it also gives the music an unreal, fantastic quality that suits its blend of science fiction and traditional doom.
From its titillating, classic cover aura to the doomed conceptual saga exposed through its lyrical musings, The Shadow Over Atlantis is a solid sophomore offering which has helped fill in the recent rent in the fabric of quality doom metal of late. This stuff has always oozed, no, trickled through from the nexus of oblivion in small quantities, in part because most 'doom' metal bands are simply hacks who believe playing dull, uninspiring chord selections at drudging paces with aggressive vocals somehow fit the bill. The Wounded Kings could not be further from their bland contemporaries, for this English band reach right back to the source of the medium, a diminishing lifewell from which only slight strands of hope can escape, much less thrive.
The Shadow Over Atlantis is not entirely ignorant of its more modern suburbia, that is to say they have a penchant for slight atmospheric melody that one might hear in many modern atmospheric/ambient black or doom metal bands, but the chords and vocals themselves fall somewhere in between Candlemass and St. Vitus, or Black Sabbath and Skepticism, and their willingness to branch off into ambient segues of dreary, minimal piano and the sheen of ages to transcend the limits of the pure rock foundation. My tongue is running circles here as it transmits to the keyboard, but what I'm really trying to tell you is that The Wounded Kings are one of those great and rare doom metal acts whom you should listen to immediately if you have ever partaken in the genre with anything bordering personal rapture.
The 10+ minutes of "The Swirling Mist" represent the perfect descent into the submerged myth-history of the fabled, titular metropolis, as huge Sabbath-drawn blues crank out the grinding, lazy rhythms, and feedback grooves off into the depths, circling the central decline like a kraken in heat. The notes turn to crushing chords, and then the vocals...oh, the vocals. Imagine if Messiah Marcolin (of Candlemass) was a plague victim, but his corpse remained animated, and could be found deep in its cups at the local low rent drinking hole, crooning from the corner in the most deadened parody of its life songs, bereft of any pompous operatic excess. Melodic, depressing guitar melodies continue to emerge like tentacles from the surrounding waters, and the track becomes even more brilliant after the 7 minute mark, when it transforms from a ringing, tonal organ to more winding, sparse pianos to another muddied blues burn.
From this, the "Baptism of Atlantis" rises, like a nautilus breaking the brine, thick chords roiling in a shifting morass of bloodied detritus, while another of the atmospheric guitars promises a bitter sun that you shall never rise again to see. Lament! This track, too, will fade into a sequence of sampled waves and dark organs worthy of Nemo, and then some twining melodies that cling to your lost soul like strands of hungry seaweed. "Into the Ocean's Abyss" is a brief, collapsing piano interlude which only compounds the bleak atmosphere of the album, just how much darker can this fucking get? The answer lies in "The Sons of Belial", another 8 minute crawl across the perils of hubris, replete with sparse and super powerful chords that suck the listener's life out like a vampiric squid, seducing you with the black inks and oils of its demesne. "Deathless Echo" is another brief segment, under 3 minutes, with lots of submerged atmosphere, slowly plodding drumbeat and sweltering abysmal organs, and it serves to herald the final, 10 minute opus "Invocation of the Ancients", which opens in lavish choirs of the damned and then haunting doom riffs that escalate into crushing force as you conjure forth the lost from their slumber at the oceans floor, all mysteries revealed and history repeating itself as black clouds roll forth over you and yours.
The Shadow Over Atlantis is shockingly good, you've simply got to commit yourself to its subtleties and imagination for the 40+ minutes to appreciate it. There is no musical complexity, and none required; just the raw and beautiful expression that has always graced the very best of the doom metal genre. Though the four flagship tracks are 8-10 minutes long, you never feel bored out of your skull when listening, and the interludes are striking and well placed to offer no-less-depressing segues from the crushing. It may not be 100% perfect in execution (the lyrics are adequate and bleak, if occasionally obvious and underwhelming), but this is perhaps the best doom effort I've heard in a very long time, and easily the one to beat in 2010.
Highlights: drowning can take awhile.