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All quiet on the Cimmerian front - 71%

differer, June 4th, 2009

This album was supposed to be phenomenal, at least according to the person who recommended it to me. The best death/doom release of the decade, he said. The greatest riffs you’ll ever hear, he said. A haunting atmosphere like you wouldn’t believe, he said. Well, it turns out he was wrong – and if not exactly wrong, I certainly don’t agree with him. There is absolutely nothing phenomenal here. The music is good, most of the time, but not special in any way. I’ve heard all of this before.

One of the reasons I was very interested in ‘Hyborea’ prior to hearing it is that I was once a huge fan of Conan the Barbarian; I was curious to find out how the concept would translate into music. Sadly, this is not the sort of atmosphere I associate with the character. There should be bursts of violent energy coupled with moments of eerie mysticism (just don’t ask me how to accomplish it) – instead, we have here a rather run-of-the-mill “epic” feel not unlike, say, your average pagan metal band. At times there’s also a strange sense of peace and quiet, but not as in “calm before the storm”, just – calm. In a word, the big picture is very little beyond boring. Not that I usually care much about atmosphere anyway, I tend to focus on music as simply music. It’s good, then, that Keen of the Crow manage to write listenable material regardless of the “spiritual” side of things.

What first caught my ear with this album was the fact that, even though I was told there would be great riffs here, there are practically none – or else I’ve completely misunderstood what ‘a riff’ means; most of the time the guitars perform the kind of work on chords that’s not far from recent Primordial, for example. This is often done well, creating an interplay of the instruments that leaves you humming a melody when none is actually being played, but there are moments when the idea gets lost and what comes out seems quite random and too simple. These parts rely heavily on repetition; now, repetition is of course not bad in itself, but it requires a lot from the things that are being repeated. Here, the relative simplicity of the parts is a huge obstacle. ‘Where Dead Kings Lie’ is a good example in its overbearing length and minimal musical content – this is what an opening track should not be like. To be precise, it isn’t the opening track, but ‘Prologue’ is perhaps even worse a choice to start the album with. A minute or so of clicking drum sticks together? If there is an idea behind this nonsense, I fail to understand it. Not to mention that album-closing ‘Epilogue’ is the exact same track. I would have expected something more thought-out.

At other times, there are parts similar to My Dying Bride – like a watered-down version of ‘Turn Loose the Swans’, or something like that. These moments are not at all bad and could appear more often, but they do have a feel of rehashing other people’s ideas to some extent, which is obviously not a positive thing. Surprisingly enough, Keen of the Crow are at their best and most memorable in the clean parts; luckily, there are a lot of them. This goes for the vocals as well. The specific style of harsh vocals doesn’t fit the music too well, but is good for what it is – the type of growl that is easily adjustable in both pitch and power – but the clean voice is by far superior. Incidentally, the singer sounds just about exactly like one Finnish “dark pop” (or was it goth) vocalist whose name I can’t seem to remember. His voice is relatively high-pitched and powerful, and it’s nice to hear some very precise articulation. The only catch is that he’s very precise with the melodies too, making it sound like he has to focus on singing rather than letting his voice out in a relaxed manner. In any case, when matched with clean guitars, the singer is magnificent. The way the guitarists use pedal notes when playing clean makes me think of early Anathema, which is always a plus. The clean instrumental parts are also clear highlights here: the intros in the latter parts of the album save the thing from becoming too monotonous, and the acoustic outro in ‘To Reach Emptiness’, with its classically influenced lead melodies, is simply the best part of the entire album. I actually think I heard some Spanish-sounding things there – not flamenco, though.

One very strange thing is the order of the tracks. Apart from the afore-mentioned ‘Prologue’ and ‘Epilogue’, only two of them are even relatively short, and both are heard early on the album. This makes the latter stages almost unbearable, as musical variation is not exactly the main aspect here. At number three, the title track lifts the album back to “promising”, being easily the most powerful and to-the-point effort here, but is completely forgotten by the time you’ve sat through the rest of the album. Then, there’s ‘The Eye of the Serpent’; let’s face it, if you’re going to put a short instrumental track on an album, people will think of it as an interlude. Therefore, it makes absolutely no sense to place it way before the half-way mark. However, this is not to say that the track itself is bad – managing to create a genuine atmosphere, it is one of the better moments on ‘Hyborea’.

I think the main reason I was so disappointed with this album is that it was nowhere near what I thought (or hoped) it would be: the atmosphere was wrong, there was chord-strumming instead of riffs, and so on. But, to be honest, I’ve grown quite fond of it by now. While some sides were – and are – huge letdowns, others turned out to be pleasant surprises, and the good parts still continue to grow on me. There isn’t anything new or sensational here, that’s for sure, but there are also a lot of albums far worse than this one. A promising debut, in other words. Had they not split up, the band could have done great things in the future.

Power to match REH's compelling storytelling - 96%

Nahsil, February 17th, 2008

Ex-Morgion members Justin Christian and Rhett Davis have outdone themselves. Morgion were one of the most organic and atmospheric doom/death outfits around (while retaining the crushing heaviness that the genre is known for), and their breakup was a tragic loss for doom/death fans. The news of Keen's split is equally unfortunate, but they did leave us with something to remember them by, and it happens to be one of the best albums in metal.

Riffs are the name of the game; riffs and sensational vocals. Leif Edling's guitar melodies were never this good, coming from a Candlemass zealot. The first indication that Keen of the Crow aren't fucking around comes three minute into 'Where Dead Kings Lie'. If you have a head, it will bang. The whole song is a testament to musical genius, of which KotC's cup runneth over. The vocals are absolutely among the best of the best, be it throaty death growls or shrieks that reach higher in register, or melodic clean singing, which rears its head a few times throughout the album -- a good thing, because Keen are not Killswitch Engage, and the singing of Dan Ochoa gets all my support. To use a boxing/mixed martial arts analogy, the vocallist "leaves everything in the ring". Dan Ochoa gives it his all, and his all is impressive. Much of the power and emotion driving this album is the result of a singer who excels at every line.

"Emptiness,
of that I know
...
Emptiness,
of that I am"

Morgion were masters of dynamics, effectively utilizing levels of subtle softness and explosive extremes. Keen of the Crow improve upon that formula. There are four interludes including the intro and outro. The two 'real' interludes separate some of the album's most epic tracks, giving the listener time to rest and setting the stage for Hyborea's longer tracks. That said, there's nothing tedious or tiring about the 9 minute 'Where Dead Kings Lie' or 8 minute 'To Reach Emptiness'; they don't need interludes. Every track is distinct and introduces its own elements; KotC don't plagiarize themselves much (things can get fuzzy when the songs 'Burning Away...' and 'Valeria' come into play, but never skip-worthy), even though they have several acoustic bits and don't stray far from their formula of heavy-soft-heavy-soft.

Riffs make the album, simple as that. Most songs have driving guitar melodies that fit the intended atmosphere, such as the desperate and longing cry of 'To Reach Emptiness' and the neck-wrecking 'Seeking Fury, Becoming Wrath'.

"I have come, to burn your temples
...
I have risen, to claim my vengeaaaance,
seeking fury, becoming wraaaaaaaaath"

Hyborea, for fans of Conan the Cimmerian and doom/death, like myself, is a dream realized.

As Epic as the Movie - 90%

DeviousDarren, June 20th, 2007

“Hyborea” is the first full-length album for Los Angeles, California doomsters, Keen of the Crow. Formerly, the group self-released a demo then a mini-disc of the same name, “Premonition.” The demo caught the attention of Grau records—a German-based label known for releasing quality doom metal like Mourning Beloveth and Saturnus. Those who have read R.E. Howard’s pulp fantasy novels, the Marvel Comic, and have seen the movie know that “Hyborea” belongs to the Conan mythos. Each song on “Hyborea” musically recreates eleven of the most significant parts of the Conan story.

Keen of the Crow does well in capturing the magic, wrathful sentiment found in the story of Conan the Barbarian. “Prologue” and “Epilogue” begin this album in a similar fashion to the beginning and ending of the Conan movie. Drummer, Rhett Davis clicks his drum sticks after a couple of kettle drum beats. The low-level drum beats instill a distant quality, showing the tale is one of times long gone. These short intros and outros recall the wizard’s narrations in the film.

The music and vocals properly portray the movie’s characters and themes. “The Eye of the Serpent” and “To Reach Emptiness” represents the antagonists, The cult of Set, who murdered Conan’s parents and lit his heart with a burning flame for revenge. “The Eye of the Serpent” is an instrumental break played with keyboards and an acoustic guitar built upon the melody of the scene where Conan and his companions break into the Cult of Set’s temple during a gruesome ritual. KOTC borrows a sound clip of James Earl Jones’s character, Thulsa Doom’s, harrowing speech after the three warriors desecrate his temple.

“To Reach Emptiness” captures the dark philosophy of Thulsa Doom and his cult. Singer Dan Ochoa’s clean vocal narrations enchant and allure with the promise that emptiness will set you free. The doomy guitar riffs at the beginning help paint a picture of the black void Thulsa Doom is offering. Further into the song, the music descends even closer into oblivion with exceptionally strong death vocals and serpentine doom rhythms, like the serpent’s coils are constructing away your soul. The musical break from this portion of the song is my personal favorite rhythm of the whole album. Candlemass comes to mind on this one through an undulating, mid pace rhythm that eerily ringing out in the end, enfolding the cult follower in its venomous sound.

Candlemass’ influence is obvious throughout many of the tracks. “Seeking Fury, Becoming Wrath” and “Where Dead Kings Lie” feature doomed soundscapes of Candlemass-like precision. KOTC is no Candlemass rip off band by any means. One can find influences by many other bands including Primordial, Neurosis, and Celtic Frost. The heavy gallop of “Where Dead Kings Lie” moves in a fashion recalling Celtic Frost in its prime; while, ambient breaks on tracks like “Hyborea” show a clear Neurosis influence. The churning, mid paced rhythms are in line with Primordial. Additionally, the group hasn’t forgotten bassist Justin Christian and drummer Rhett Davis’ Morgion roots.

In “Hyborea,” Keen of the Crow has created an intriguing album of vengeful doom metal and magical ambience, giver a proper metal soundtrack to one fantasy literature and film’s most beloved stories. Rumor has it that Keen of the Crow has disbanded. Let’s hope this is not true, fore “Hyborea” is a classic doom metal album. If it is, though, at least the group has given us an album that will stand the test of time.

originally published on www.metal-mayhem.co.uk