Review: Stygian Crown – Self-Titled
Crom laughs as the Crown slays
What genre has become as beloved in recent years as doom metal? Beginning with scattered, disparate groups of bands taking Sabbathian foundations in a variety of disparate directions whether it was Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Candlemass, Trouble, or Black Hole it has become a genre whose influence extends to nearly every corner of metal. Extreme metal, particular the deathly sort, has been taking notes from it ever since the days of Bolt Thrower, Autopsy, Demigod, Cianide, and Sorrow and is perhaps where its mark is most notable. On the flip side it is not often that we see the reverse and a disciple gives back to its master. It’s not hard to hear why; much of death metal was part of extreme metal cutting the last of its ties to its rockier forefathers that thrash hadn’t fully finished.
Hyperspeed blast beats and chaotic tremolo riffing are difficult to work into a doom metal context but thankfully, quite a bit of death metal dwells in a slower, grimier realm that allows for easier though still fairly uncommon cross pollination. With 3/5 of their membership being in Gravehill and with a drummer who played with cult doom-death acts Morgion, Crimson Relic, Divine Eve, and Keen of the Crow, Stygian Crown approach the realm of epic doom specifically with a gusto and expertise that’d make you think they came into this world already having memorized the first two Solitude Aeturnus albums in the womb. The end result elevates this powerful debut to more than the mere idea of a “side project” and shows they’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the tritone overlords of today.
Like a lot of great doom metal, Stygian Crown is pretty damn heavy. Guitarists Nelson Miranda and Andy Hicks lean towards the riffier end of the spectrum with a more active crunching style of guitar that skirts near the boundaries of traditional heavy metal and even hints at the muscular chordal crush of early Celtic Frost or some of the drummer’s prior acts. While the usual ringing single note riffs are present, they do not shy away from a spirited pace with heavy pulsing, marching patterns. There’s an almost Sunlight Studios semi-buzzy Swedeath sound to the guitar tone that adds even more beef to the attack and further enhances the gut-punch heft of the faster moments.
Complimenting them are the steel-resolute hammerings of drummer Rhett A. Davis and bassist Jason Thomas, lumbering with chunky thumping lines and moments of triumphant artillery-fire rolls to capitalize on moments of explosive might. While their lines are not particularly complex, the muscular thud of the bass guitar and the gunshot clarity of the drumming only further adds to the overwhelming intensity behind even the simplest of riffs. Commanding this barbaric horde is the sonorous voice of Melissa Pinion, bearing a stalwart midrange wail every bit as battle-hardened as the rest of the band. While Stygian Crown are bulldozers rather than technicians, she has ample room to soar hawk-like over the raging battles below, the orator of these distant tales whether they are of mystical rituals or colossal battles.
With this arsenal of annihilation at their beck and call, Stygian Crown uses it to fill up a fairly colossal album. There’s only one song that’s under 6 minutes in length (the intro) and they’ve given themselves the daunting task of making 7 lengthy tracks stay compelling from start to finish. Anyone who knows doom metal knows that it is a genre often built not only on the idea of less is more but also making more out of less. A single well-crafted doom metal riff, even if it is simply a scant handful of chords, can easily match a blizzard of tremolo picking or a machine gun spray of blitzing chugs through sheer death-knell weightiness. In Stygian Crown’s case, they harness the funereal severity of these lumbering riffs to counterpoint Melissa’s enthralling voice—combining the enormous lurching motions of riffs boiled down to the battle-hungering essentials with these high-flying vocal lines coasting along the tidal momentum, utilizing singing to instill a moribund heftiness that is as elegant as it is viscerally destructive.
Another particular strength is that when this band wants to they can unleash moments of impressive aggression bordering on the stampeding intensity of their other musical projects. Opener “Devour the Dead” has one of the downright heaviest sections this year around its two minute mark with a steady fist-pump-inducing series of sledgehammering chunks. “Flametongue” kicks up the tempo to a brisk sprint but settles into a sudden arabesque melody coiling and undulating around Melissa’s lines, even including a few exotic sounding strings. “Trampled into the Earth” even appears to have a slight nod to Candlemass’ “At the Gallows End” with its brooding gallop. Brute force and intransigence however only comprise a portion of their arsenal. “Through Divine Rite” shows the more sorrowful side of the band, really displaying both Melissa’s full vocal capability in its melancholy verses while Nelson and Andy show a careful hand for an ear-worming, weeping melody to match. “When Old Gods Die” unleashes not only an absolute torrent of colossal rowing riffs but an explosive series of shredding solos eclipsing the rest of the album in their exuberance. It’s no surprise the album’s closer, “Two Coins for the Ferrymen”, is where they empty out the armoury. Tasteful synths accenting mounting melodies, a stunning midsection bridge over a swaggering beat, and for good measure another roller coaster guitar solo cap off a song with the same swelling energy as a well-made blockbuster film score.
It’s at once very easy to understand doom metal but also difficult to find bands that can really harness its full power regardless of whether or not they are moving the genre forwards. Its baseline ideas successfully represent metal at its most stripped down and pure of intent, distilling the idea of the heavy and the metallic to its most blunt-ended form. Getting the grasp of it is often immediate but avoiding the fuzz worship plod disguised as songwriting, and songwriting struggling to justify bloated lengths is another matter. Stygian Crown’s war-clarions blare loud and clear over the warring doom metal masses, marching onto the battlefields of this crowded genre armed with over two decades of genre knowledge and grim lessons from death metal’s own shadowy lands.
Displaying a mastery of genre fundamentals without being blindly obedient to many of its most common practices, their self-titled debut album is refreshing in its expertise and invigorating in its axe-swinging violence and stands proud and unbowed, ready to face and violently strike down anyone who would dare to near its bone-covered throne.
Four out of Five Hyperborean Toilet-Thrones