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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.