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Two Masterpieces – Pt. 1 - 97%

failsafeman, October 1st, 2009

Crimson Glory. The name alone conjures up images both majestic and fantastic, and couldn’t be more appropriate. Here is a band that for two solid albums leads the listener on an incomparable journey through cosmic realms of both glory and tragedy toward transcendence.

Crimson Glory form the third of what I consider the three pillars of white collar USPM, the other two being Queensryche and Fates Warning (naturally we’re talking about the early output of all three). Of the three, Crimson Glory exemplifies the most typical “white collar sound”, with its clearly NWOBHM and traditional metal influenced riffs (I hear a fair bit of Defenders of the Faith in there), flashy guitar leads, progressive touches, and wailing melodramatic vocals filtered through an undeniably 80s and just as undeniably awesome production. Not to say they were the most influential, but rather as the latest of the three the sound had had time to coalesce, and they were undoubtedly influenced by the earlier two pillars. In that respect, you could almost consider Crimson Glory the first of Fates Warning’s and Queensryche’s “children”. Still, they certainly bring their own touch to the table, sounding the most traditional of the three and eschewing most of Queensryche’s overt progressive rock influences and opting for a more human approach than Fates Warning. The existential angst is totally intact however, and just taking one look at the chrome masks the guys wore onstage will let you know they weren’t afraid of a little theatrics.

First and foremost we have Midnight, a singer fully worthy to stand with Tate and Arch. As a starting point, you could almost imagine Tate and Arch combined; operatic flair with nasal wailing and a lot of multi-tracking. Crank the range up to 11 and add some rock & roll sensibility (as heard on “Queen of the Masquerade”) and you’ve got an idea. Midnight’s upper register simply has to be heard to be believed. His real strength however lies in his emotional depth, the power of his delivery is just astounding. For example on “Azrael” he assumes the identity of the Angel of Death, and “I lock the gates of hell/I toll the final bell/I am forever” is just chilling coming out of his mouth. “Mayday” has him wailing at high pitch and lightning speed, while the album closer “Lost Reflection” puts him in the tragic role of an insane person hiding in an attic talking and laughing to himself and jumping at shadows. Midnight can smooth is voice into silk or screech and snarl with equal aplomb and amazing results. The vocal multi-tracking isn’t as esoteric as Arch’s and less subtle than Queensryche’s; here the techniques employed are much more traditional with harmony on choruses and key passages along with occasional background wails, just taken to the next level. Every song has at least some, and it only serves to amplify Midnight’s already superb vocal lines. One trick used fairly often that might be a little unusual is to have one Midnight sing a really high note (and I mean REALLY high) while the other Midnight sings a note a couple octaves below, usually on the chorus (see “Painted Skies”). This works a lot better than a closer harmony for accenting a key passage, as the large interval sounds really powerful. Though used regularly, it’s used with enough moderation that it doesn’t lose that power.

Right up there with the vocals have the amazing guitar leads and shredding solos of axe maestro Jon Drenning; the ubiquitous leads even start taking over the riffs on songs like “Azrael”, which is fine by me. What makes them even better is that the band doesn’t always put the vocals on pause for most of the leads, making for a lot of complex sections with two main melodies that just rule. Holy counterpoint, Batman! There are a lot of pinch harmonics, too, which totally work.

The rhythm section is no slouch either, with the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar reasonably in the background both compositionally and in the mix (much like Queensryche in that regard), but not such that you can ignore their excellent contributions. Compared to the average metal band, emphasis on the bass is up and emphasis on the riffs is down; a lot of them are descended from the NWOBHM gallop and sometimes the riffs just drop out altogether for leads, such as on “Angels of War”. The drums have a fair amount of reverb applied to them, and the whole production has a real “open” sound to it, like the band is performing in a cathedral.

I’ll just elaborate briefly on a few songs. The opener “Valhalla” is fantastic, with the introductory dual-lead perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the album. The non-standard song structure builds throughout, culminating in the attainment of Valhalla and some of the best wailing the album has to offer, with a great shredding solo/dual-lead combo sandwiched in there. “Heart of Steel” is another standout, and while its title brings to mind Accept’s Metal Heart, the song is actually a power ballad about the uncertainty of emotion and the necessity of hardening your heart. The leads and solos on this one especially are out in full force, and though the descending chorus riff is simple (contrasting perfectly with the alternately descending/ascending vocal lines for some great melodic tension) the other main riff smacks of the progressive in its complexity. Probably my favorite pick for the album however is “Azrael”, with the marching riffs and ominous lyrics and tone building eventually exploding into the promise of transcendence or damnation: “Fly on the wings of glory/Burn in the depths of hell/Your life creates the doorway/Death holds the key” over triumphantly shrieking lead/riffs. Its emotional power is such that it requires the comedown of “Mayday”, a fun and frenetic speed metal number clocking in at just over three minutes. Closing the album is the aforementioned “Lost Reflection”, which is a (mostly) acoustic ballad showcasing Midnight’s emotional dexterity as a hopeless man locked in the attic going slowly insane. It builds to a brief climactic explosion of howling madness with heavy riffs before almost immediately breaking down again to Midnight laughing and talking to himself before fading away. A very powerful piece, and a dark note to end the album on. Crimson Glory were very conscious of album pacing, with both “Valhalla” and “Azrael” followed by little breathers before building up again (as far as intensity goes, the tracks would look something like 31241234, which works very well).

This review continues with Part 2: