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Candlemass - King of the grey islands 4.5/5

Reviewed: 8-10-07


1. Prologue
2. Emperor of the void
3. Devil seed
4. Of stars and smoke
5. Demonia 6
6. Destroyer
7. Man of shadows
8. Clearsight
9. The opal city
10. Embracing the Styx
11. Solitude (bonus track)
12. At the gallows end (bonus track)

What I am about to write may be considered heresy. The inimitable Messiah Marcolin has left Candlemass for the last time, and that's a good thing. Let me explain: I love Messiah. I come not to bury him, but to honor him. A more charismatic frontman in the doom genre there never was. His vibrato-run-amok is truly unique, not to mention his penchant for doom-dancing in monk's costume while exhorting the crowd at a German festival to "Bang das F***ing Kopfs." But he was no longer right for Candlemass. The personality rifts had become unbearable, with the fissures in the camp being obvious to anyone paying attention. Having spent some time with the band at the Brave Words 6-Pack in 2003, I immediately recognized that it was the entire band vs. Messiah, and they made no attempt to conceal their personal distaste for each other. The resulting schism destroyed the band shortly thereafter, only to give rise to a short-lived tenuous reunion in 2004-2005, when Candlemass released their brilliant 's/t' CD. But this kind of fragile truce was in no way sustainable, and it came as no shock when Messiah cut the cord again in 2006. What was a surprise was that the remainder of Candlemass tapped doom vocalist extraordinaire Robert Lowe of Solitude Aeturnus to sing on their new CD. The resulting collaboration is the stuff of dreams for doom metal fanatics, sort of a doom lover's fantasy league come to life, the same kind of pulse-quickening cataclysmic collaboration that the Hansi Kursch/Jon Schaffer combination was cracked up to be for power metal mavens.

That said, the critics have been sharply divided on 'King of the grey islands', some praising it as a doom masterpiece and others expressing profound disappointment. The 2 major criticisms the CD seems to be attracting are that Lowe is not Messiah, and that the songwriting is too simple and repetitive. I disagree with both. Oh sure, it is technically true that Lowe is not Messiah, but so what? Robert Lowe is the most gifted doom singer ever, and would rank in my top 5 vocalists of all time, among the likes of Dickinson, Adams, and Conklin. What's more, Lowe is currently experiencing a creative resurgence, as his work both on the most recent Solitude Aeturnus platter, 'Alone', and on this Candlemass CD rank among his most spellbinding performances in his distinguished career. He may not hit the super-high clean notes that he did on 'Opaque divinity' and the like back in 1990, but I defy you to find a singer that melds despair, melancholia, twisted psychosis, creepiness, power, and angelic melodic sensibility the way Lowe does. He is a magnificent talent, and this CD would not be as good as it is if he were not singing on it. Period.

The other knock on 'King of the grey islands' is that Leif Edling's songwriting is too stripped down, repetitive, stiff and boring, and that it is more like Krux than classic Candlemass. Balderdash. I have to wonder if these reviewers are listening to the same CD I am. As an initial matter, the premise of the objection is a bit goofy, because doom metal has never been characterized by frenetic tempo changes and 100 riffs per song. Listen to any classic doom CD and you'll find monolithic, punishing, dense-as-elephant-dung riffs plowed into oblivion, over and over again in a relentless groove that snaps your neck to bits. Even 'Nightfall' and 'Ancient dreams' - the Holy Grail of the doom world - bear these characteristics proudly. This is a hallmark of the doom style, and to ding 'King of the grey islands' on that basis strikes me as way off-base. But the larger flaw in this criticism is that the songwriting on 'King of the grey islands' is superb. I count 5 songs (out of 8 proper songs total on this CD) that are instant doom classics: "Emperor of the void", "Demon seed", "Of stars and smoke", "Clearsight", and the mind-boggling "Embracing the Styx". And "Man of shadows" is not far behind either. To be sure, each of these songs is elevated substantially by Lowe's sublime contributions, but even he can't polish a turd. These were great tracks to begin with. If you don't get chills at the end of this tortured character's journey, when Lowe plaintively intones, "A man who was an ant and a lion/Died on the isle of the king," you are beyond help. So I vehemently disagree with those who fault Edling's songwriting here.

To rate a CD like this one is extraordinarily difficult. Lowe's vocal performance merits a 5/5, no doubt. The songs vary from 3.5/5 ("Demonia 6") to 5/5 ("Of stars and smoke", "Embracing the Styx"). I teetered on the brink between a 4/5 and 4.5/5 until I considered the 2 bonus tracks, which are re-recordings of Candlemass classics "Solitude" and "At the gallows end" with Lowe on the mike. These tracks were exceptional to begin with, and to hear them re-recorded with Lowe is pretty close to heaven on earth. So a 4.5/5 it is. If you purchase 2 doom CDs this year, get Solitude Aeturnus's 'Alone' and Candlemass's 'King of the grey islands'. But if you can only purchase one, this is the one to get. I really can't think of higher praise.




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