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A lost asteroid in the death metal universe - 65%

Metal Arcane, December 25th, 2016

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.