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Twist of fate - 83%

gasmask_colostomy, September 13th, 2017

For anyone unsure about Portrait, let's put it like this. Everyone keeps saying the same thing about them, which is that they sound like Mercyful Fate. Those people are very, very right, because Portrait do sound a lot like Mercyful Fate and sound even more like Attic and (often) In Solitude, two bands who have built careers on sounding a lot like Mercyful Fate. However, one thing that all those people have been saying is that it doesn't matter. Why? Because Mercyful Fate were (are, if you bear in mind that they haven't actually split up) totally great and haven't released an album since 1999, leaving a huge gap in our scene. Now, if such an awesome band chooses to absent themselves, surely someone else will be able to step into the ranks as replacement, and who better to do that than Portrait? My review is kind of going to say, "Yes, Portrait are the best", but also say, "All those other people are missing the point."

Let's start with the Mercyful Fate thing, since it would be stupid not to mention it. The whole basis of a song like 'Infinite Descension' is to take the rock-rooted but definitely metal-sounding riffing style of the Danes to its logical conclusion, which is to fuzz the guitars up a little and play a bit faster than on Fate's Melissa, while Per Karlsson shrieks and wails at the top of his range, sounding very close to King Diamond's electrifying voice, though without the trouble of his frequent shifts in style to evil low or ridiculously high tones. The solos are toned back in this medium-paced rocker, though the subtle organ that appears near the end is merely another nod to the source, as is the following acoustic interlude 'The Wilderness Beyond', which reminds me rather of Sacred Reich's 'Layed to Rest' as well. The lead playing was an important element in Mercyful Fate's appeal and that comes out strongly on most of the other songs, 'Beast of Fire' blasting off with the kind of caterwauling solo that initiated metalheads into 'A Corpse Without Soul' way back in 1982, while there are more melodic moments of intricate interplay and melodic suss that show Richard Lagergren and Christian Lindell have done their homework and scored satisfying marks.

So far, so predictable, right? However, Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae (I'd been holding off on typing that) is an album that is conscious of its temporal separation from its inspiration, ensuring that the fatal formula receives an update in more ways than one. The first and most obvious of these alterations that will hit the listener in roughly the same manner as buses hit traffic victims is the considerable boost in the heaviness of the music. While maintaining the same classic tone that greying metalheads will approve of, the blastbeat-ridden sections of 'Darkness Forever' and 'Beast of Fire' are one marker of the more aggressive direction in which the Swedes are headed, not to mention the lack of any laidback vocal moments and generally increased pace. The way in which 'Bloodbath' rips into its verses is more akin to a speed black metal hybrid than anything related to NWOBHM, in addition to the hellish thrash exhibited as 'The Passion' ups the intensity.

The other feature that distinguishes Portrait's output from their source material is the songwriting style and, as a result of said style, the song lengths. This album particularly opts for girth, packing in seven full songs with a total length of more than 50 minutes, including two numbers of around eight minutes and a closer that nearly reaches ten. This proves a little problematic for Crimen..., since this kind of dramatic heavy metal relies as much on impact as maintenance, so any song that hangs on too long should decline in direct relation to its running time. I'll be the first to say that this element robs the songs of memorability and means that hooks are all the more necessary to hold the listener's attention, though those hooks sadly fail to materialize in the expected quantity and quality. On the other hand, that's not to say that the songs waste too much time or are utterly forgettable, merely that it takes several listens before they begin to shine and reveal their full potential. The very beginning of 'Darkness Forever' should be enough to attract fans on the first spin and 'The Nightcomers' has one of the finest vocal hooks (not quite singalong, but whatever) coupled with catchy riffing. The structures generally contain something like verses and choruses, though the knottiness of some means that unexpected leads, bridges, and changes of direction will continue to surprise months after the first experience, so there's plenty of repeat value here.

Thus, for all the auditory and aesthetic similarity that Crimen... has to the school of Mercyful Fate, numerous differences arise in the course of listening and the end result is to prevent all possibility of confusion between the two bands. Unquestionably, the decision to add heaviness and pace to an already exciting sound was inspired, yet I can't help but feel that a little more focus in the songwriting would have helped this to achieve an even more pleasing result, especially when Fate were able to make a three minute song such as 'Gypsy' that lacked in nothing. Granted, Portrait were aiming for something different to that little gem and it's fortunate that their thicker, darker approach made that happen. Aside from the somewhat lacklustre 'Infinite Descension', the rest of Crimen... gets a big satanic thumbs up, particularly 'The Passion' and 'The Nightcomers'. I'm glad I don't have to choose Fate's replacement just yet.