Written by: Beaston Lane
2020 was my first year delving into the obscure and current side of heavy metal, leading me to listen to a seemingly infinite amount of artists including critical darlings like Haken and Imperial Triumphant. However, one band that seemed to fly under the radar far too often--Black Crown Initiate--endlessly commanded my attention with their third album, Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape.
Having dropped on August 7th, this magnum opus has steadily gained momentum through the beginning of 2021, but I’m here to put it in the spotlight again. Artists who released albums during 2020 took a big risk with touring on hiatus, and they deserve all the attention they can get. Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape is my favorite album of the year--intoxicating, refreshing, poignant, and above all, beautiful.
Within a genre as consistently amazing as progressive death metal, bands who aren’t already big names are much harder to distinguish from their peers. Residing in the technical realm, Black Crown Initiate rose to underground fame in 2013 thanks to their debut EP, Song of the Crippled Bull, which many a metalhead still hold in the highest regard. Their first two records, The Wreckage of Stars and Selves We Cannot Forgive, are great works of tech-death, but never quite achieved the heights of the EP. After bringing on drummer Samuel Santiago and guitarist Ethan McKenna in 2018, the band fully fleshed out the genius of past tracks like “Great Mistake” and “Again” on VPODE, capturing lightning in a bottle for seven epic tracks of transcendent extreme metal.
“Invitation” wastes no time getting things started, opening with subtle acoustic chords and melancholic clean vocals from Andy Thomas. These lyrics serve to foreshadow the album’s narrative, fading out as James Dorton’s colossal harsh vocals explode on the wings of abrasive distortion. This interlude fades seamlessly into the atmospheric verses, which build to unleash one of the best choruses of 2020. Outrageously catchy, thrillingly dramatic, and riffy as hell, this Thomas-led chorus is what cements “Invitation” as a classic, ensuring that even as a true progressive death metal song, it’s as much of an earworm as something off Future Nostalgia. Even the complex guitar solos and bridges stick long after you’ve stopped listening, thanks to top-notch performances from every band member.
Instead of trying to follow “Invitation” with another epic, Black Crown Initiate switches gears on the differently structured “Son of War” and “Trauma Bonds.” The former clocks in only four minutes, yet it runs like a heavier TOOL classic and maintains the dramatic atmosphere of its predecessor. If it wasn’t already clear, the perfection of Dorton and Thomas’s vocal dynamic becomes apparent here. Interestingly, Dorton’s growls contrast the more atmospheric instrumentation while Thomas’s angelic cleans contrast total brutality, creating an intoxicating mix of the light and the dark. “Trauma Bonds” continues the blending of styles, balancing devastating verses with poignant choruses. This track boasts the clearest lyrical concept, lamenting the tragedy of vicious cycles with cyclical guitar melodies to match. It’s a song anyone can relate to, and its message of balance reminded me of shows like The Haunting of Hill House and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Closing the first section is “Years in Frigid Light,” an epic track that fades into the oddly hypnotic throat-singing of the intermission track, “Bellow.” With more moments of quiet than previous tracks, “Years in Frigid Light” gradually blends its abrasive and ethereal sections, starting off with stop-start transitions and ending with an effortless synthesis of the two. As the echoes of “Bellow” rumble through the speakers, you’ll feel as though you’ve experienced a full album-worth of excellence, even though there’s still about 23 minutes left! This is where VPODE surpasses its predecessors--mimicking Song of the Crippled Bull with its robust and captivating first half.
“Death Comes in Reverse” opens the second half with sinister clean guitars, establishing the eerie, fragile atmosphere that will carry this album to its conclusion. The first song that leans more overtly towards atmospheric, it’s a savvy change of pace that consistently builds in magnificence to set up the jaw-dropping majesty of “Sun of War” and “Holy Silence.”
The first of two epics that round out VPODE, “Sun of War” was the song that made me interested in this album in the first place, aggressively grabbing my attention in June and never letting go. Setting a scene of war and destruction with quiet vocals and soft instrumentals, the track explodes into what may be the heaviest and fastest riffs on the album. Similar to “Invitation,” this controlled chaos culminates in a fantastic chorus, this time shared by Thomas and Dorton in paradoxical harmony. Angry like a fuming tyrant, the track sheds the calm of “Death Comes in Reverse” for an apocalyptic odyssey that concludes with a perfectly ominous outro.
As the last proper song on the album, the bar that “Holy Silence” needed to meet is astronomically high--but it had little trouble raising the bar even further. Incorporating all the motifs present on VPODE, this track opens as serenely as any of the others, but introduces an undeniable chorus that rivals even “Invitation,” even though it’s all growls! This alone is a testament to Black Crown Initiate’s exceptional songwriting, but this song’s overarching slow-build is the true crown jewel. With each passage, “Holy Silence” increases in intensity, but at the five-minute mark, the band strips their sound down to only clean guitars. This drastic shift soon sees the successive reintroduction of the bass, drums, and finally electric guitars, resulting in an absolutely spine-tingling guitar solo. Beautifully melodic, obscenely fast, and truly poignant, this solo is as memorable as any chorus or riff on this album; at times, it seems as though the guitars are expressing more emotion than a human voice ever could. As “Holy Silence” fades, the outro, “He is the Path,” reprises “Invitation” for a narrative, emotional conclusion that ensures VPODE is complete.
It seems fitting to compare this album to great fictional battles between good and evil, like Lord of the Rings, but its true meaning is far beyond that. Black Crown Initiate has never been a band to explain what their songs mean, writing them so that they can connect with fans in an infinite number of ways. The “narrative” I’ve referenced throughout this review isn’t so much a formal story as it is the journey of one’s heart through difficult and uncertain times. What you see between the lines of VPODE will always be your own story, and that is truly where the band triumphs. As phenomenal musicians and performers, so much of what this record has to say is conveyed clearly through their mastery of the medium.
As we look toward the remainder of 2021 with optimism, it always helps to remember that even in the darkest of times, there will always be glimmers of light. Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape is a perfect reminder of that fact, and I’m beyond thankful that Black Crown Initiate made the tough decision to share it with us in a world of uncertainty. It has truly helped me through the toughest moments of 2020, and for that reason and many others, I recommend it to you with the highest praise I possibly can.
Black Crown Initiate - Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape was released Aug. 7th, 2020 from Century Media
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!