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So last week I rallied against a cult classic that I cannot for the life of me grasp the universal adoration for (Toxik's Think This), and was swiftly called out for my atrocious taste. I won't deny it, I dislike a lot of things that the general metal fandom adores (Dark Angel, Manilla Road) and vice versa (Lamb of God, As I Lay Dying), I'm bound to butt heads with people fairly often. But, while I adore being the center of controversy and attention, every once in a while I feel the need to wheel backwards and join in a good ol' fashioned circle jerk. The biscuit in the center of it all today? Why no other than W.A.S.P.'s most ambitious, and amazing, most outstandlingly mindblowingly great concept album, 1992's, The Crimson Idol.
I would like to run a quick experiment on you if you've yet to hear this album. First off what the fuck is wrong with you? Secondly, go to Youtube and look up "Doctor Rockter". Take in that song, it's the shortest one on the album outside of the intro track, so it's not much of a time investment. It's a fun, hard rocking track, while at the same time carries a very strong, dark overtone. The Deep Purple styled rock organ keys keep the tone bleak and dreary despite the high tempo, and the broken plea for salvation in drugs in the chorus just gives this sick feeling of cognitive dissonance. It's a jovial rhythm coupled with a layer of dirty, horrifying tragedy on top of it. It all works perfectly.
It is also the worst song on the album.
Seriously, almost no other record in the history of heavy metal can shake a stick at the consistently stratospheric quality of the songs on display in The Crimson Idol. This is one of those one-in-a-million albums where every idea hits bullseye, all but one or two minor nitpicks about this album are just perfect. Not a single note is wasted, Blackie's ear for melody was always astonishing, but here it just reaches a new level. No solo is excessively noodly, no riff is overdone, no chorus repeated too often, everything is perfectly portioned and hits every target. I can't stress enough how nearly every single element at play falls into place with absolutely no awkwardness.
Now before I derail into foaming-at-the-mouth fanboy lunacy, I have to make a preposterous claim really quickly that I'm sure will make perfect sense once I explain myself. Simply put, The Crimson Idol is the heaviest metal album of all time. I mean this on a purely emotional level, no other album, besides maybe Wormphlegm's Tomb of the Ancient King carries the sheer emotional weight that this album carries. The first time I heard this, I knew it was a concept album, but I didn't really know the story behind it. I didn't listen to the lyrics very closely, but by the time the closing notes of "The Great Misconception of Me" were wrapping up, I just felt... awful. I felt like the worst human being on the planet, for absolutely no readily discernible reason. My whole world was bleak and grey, and I just felt like I lost my best friend, and that it was somehow my fault. Every single time I listen to this album, even now that I know the narrative, I end the experience feeling drab and depressed. Seriously, this album should come packaged with a revolver and a solitary bullet, it's so goddamned bleak.
Two of the reasons the emotional impact hits so expertly close to the soul are the pacing and repeating motifs. The opening overture, aptly named "The Titanic Overture" introduces at least two of the main themes of the album, with other riffs, melodies, and vocal lines being introduced down the road that resurface more and more as the album goes on ("Only love can set me free", "Long live the King of Mercy", and "I don't want to be..." are the three most prominent). Throw this in with the flawless pacing and you have a recipe for clinical depression. The album starts off with a hat trick of high octane rockers, all layered with enough ominous foreboding to last an entire Axis of Perdition album, before giving way to a ballad break (and a fittingly dark one at that), two more rockers, and ends on two and a half ballads, with the last ten minute track being half and half, with a reprise to the opening sequences of "The Titanic Overture" to wrap up the album nicely. What this does is allow us listeners to experience the album in the same way that the narrator (Jonathon) is experiencing the story. With the urgent start out of a dark beginning, our appetite is whet by the promise of this monolithic experience, and as it progresses, it gets darker and darker, eventually slowing itself to a peaceful crawl. By the time "The Idol" is done, you're really to just lay down and accept death as your punishment for all the decadence that preceded that moment, just as Johnny is unfulfilled by the fact that his newfound success still doesn't earn him the respect of the always cold and distant family that had disowned him. "The Great Misconception of Me" ends the album in the most beautiful way imaginable, a remorseful plea for forgiveness followed by a public suicide. This shit is so heavy and tragic, and the way it's laid out lends itself to vicarious shame and hopelessness. The repeating themes and motifs are so brilliant because the same things that were so epic and entertaining in the beginning of the album are the same things that are slowly killing us by the end. The same imagery in a different light, and it really puts the entire theme of the album in perspective. And all of this emotional depth and complexity is coming from the same songwriter that routinely delivered no less than six songs about masturbation per album back in the 80s, go figure!
That previous paragraph really sums up what makes the album work so well, but it would all be moot if the songwriting wasn't stellar as well. Every element meshes in a brilliantly dark way, particularly those keys. They're mainly that rock organ sound that Jon Lord made his trademark a few decades prior, and they're almost always layering themselves over the classic metal riffage in an ominous fog. Each and every riff also manages to capture the emotion of their respective tracks perfectly, with "Arena of Pleasure" being a giant riff monster that is both fulfilling and at the same time numbing, whereas "I am One" sounds initially triumphant before descending into more foreboding territory. The unconventional use of two different drummers (Stet Howland and Frankie Banali) produces some incredibly busy and frantic rhythms. Seriously, these fellas really channeled their inner Bill Ward for these performances, there are rolls and fills all over the place. While flashy, they always work to the advantage of the musical narrative, increasing in complexity and frequency the more urgent the guitar work would get. And all of this is masterfully contained within the framework of that special brand of fist pumping heavy metal that W.A.S.P. was always so stunningly good at. The infectious hooks are still around, however dark they may be nowadays. The first three songs in particular nail this particular strength of Blackie's the strongest, with "The Invisible Boy" being one of the catchiest songs about neglectful, abusive childhood ever written. Every chorus sticks in your mind, from the sorrowful plea for forgiveness of "The Idol", the celebration of debauchery of "Arena of Pleasure", or the rock n roll excess of "I am One".
If I'm going to be nitpicky on an Antwilerian level, I do have to point out that, while the pacing of the album is perfect, I can't help but wonder if "Hold On to My Heart" is misplaced. "The Idol" ends with Jonathon's parents essentially telling him that he's dead to them, and so the broken man is told that "it's showtime", and a roaring crowd crescendos in. Smash cut to silence, and then the fantastic acoustic ballad, "Hold On to My Heart" plays. When it concludes, the finale ("The Great Misconception of Me") begins with Jonathon saying "Welcome to the show...". It just feels like time stopped and the obvious power ballad was kind of shoehorned in right there. It's literally the only moment the narrative suffers, and I feel like the two ballads should have swapped places, because the pacing is still beautifully flawless with those two slow songs being at the end of the album, but story-wise it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
But that's it, that one little nitpick is literally my only issue with The Crimson Idol. Everything else about this album is among the best in the genre. The songwriting, the hooks, the riffs, the solos, the choruses, the ballads, the mood, the tone, the pacing, the atmosphere, the story, every single thing works magnificently, most importantly of which is the emotional connection that most people can make with this album. It revels in an upbeat darkness that initially veils a bottomless depth of brooding sadness that eventually takes center stage by album's end. This is among the weightiest metal ever written, across any subgenre. When I'm depressed, I rarely listen to optimistic music in hopes it'll cheer me up, instead I like to find something sad or hopeless and just wallow in my negativity for an hour, and The Crimson Idol is right up there with Sunn O)))'s Black One and Tyranny's Tides of Awakening for such a task, the main difference being that I one can listen to this without a requisite mood, but don't be surprised if you, like me, end up feeling like you need to grab a straight razor and head to the bath by the time it wraps up.
Originally written for http://lairofthebastard.blogspot.com/