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Layered like Damascene - 95%

naverhtrad, January 9th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Debemur Morti Productions (Digipak)

好,大業!We won again. That is good. Now tell me, what is best in life?

The open steppe, a fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair?

Wrong.

To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women, is of course the correct answer. But a close second would be to hear the Sons of Crom singing about the same.

Sons of Crom are one of the most promising new bands I’ve heard in some time, and each description of their music, in approaching greater accuracy, does them less justice with each addition. Riddle of Steel is a breathtaking epic-heavy-doom-progressive-Viking-black-folk album – and that makes it sound like a total mess, blending way too many elements at once to be effective. But this album is very much not. The Eye of the Serpent here displayed by this Finnish-Swedish duo sparkles with many facets, each brilliant to behold, and each melancholically fleeting. The entire album bristles with both triumph and tragedy, with the wisdom of long-buried ages past, with the glimmering blood of heroes scattered like rubies across the wild frozen hills, and it leaps from one peak to the next with a grace forged in fire.

If I speak in too Howardian an idiom in describing this album, that should only bespeak the might and prowess with which it strikes at its own themes. Normally the pulp-fictional subject matter and inspiration would make the resulting metal album either cheesy or painfully self-aware, but the Sons of Crom manage to avoid both extremes on what sounds like sheer conviction alone. Perhaps Conan never prayed to Crom but once, but something like what drove him to his deeds is driving this album as well. It is notoriously difficult to deliver something that plumbs the emotional depths of misery and the heights of berserker ecstasy with anything resembling consistency, yet that is precisely what Riddle of Steel does.

As I said before, one can hear many different strains and influences distinctly on this album, though they are forged in many layers like the finest Damascene, resulting in patterns which render the final product unique. So, yes, you can practically taste the influence of all three of Bathory, Solstice and Atlantean Kodex in equal measure on this album, the progressive, doom and black / pagan elements alternating with each other in an elemental triskelion fashion. But they are neither held completely separate nor muddled together haphazardly. To give just a couple of examples, the black-metal vocal and guitar stylings of ‘Myrkrarfar’ and ‘Call of the Black Mountain’ are placed at the service of a driving, doomy rhythm; whereas on the masterful opus ‘Victory’ the black-metal elements take a back seat to the clean guitar tones, the epic song structure and the slow, mournful vocals, but still make themselves felt in the atmosphere. And what makes ‘Victory’ epic rather than merely an above-average twelve-minute doom track is its atmosphere.

And then there’s the ‘Cimmerian Dance’.

Quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve heard ‘party music’ this awesome performed by any band in recent times in any of the genres amongst which the Sons of Crom place themselves – at any rate, not since Moonsorrow’s ‘Pakanajuhla’ on Suden uni. As uplifting and catchy as any Manowar or Hammerfall number without losing any of the underlying epic-doom weight and heft, it sets off on one deceptively simple downtuned arena-rock hook and just coasts through, letting each of the various elemental triskelion elements play off it in turn: the synths providing the atmosphere just long enough to draw you in, before seguing into an uptempo folksy passage punctuated by an obligatory ‘hey!’, at which point the guitar solo just drives the point home. But even as the instrumentation fades away and trails off into a misty melancholy, ‘Cimmerian Dance’ never loses its focus, and retains its force right down to the last synth trill.

Riddle of Steel comes highly recommended for anyone who loves Bathory, Moonsorrow, Solstice, Atlantean Kodex, Slough Feg, Manilla Road or, to be honest, any traditional heavy metal band with heart and soul and conviction. After all, hey, do you want to live forever?

19 / 20