The Porcelain Throne: Grand Magus
Realistically, this edition should be called The Steel Throne. Come learn about this power metal mainstay, thanks to Toilet friend Tigeraid.
Friends, do you like True Metal? Do you perhaps like Manowar?
Rather, do you like what Manowar once was, at the height of their powers? Before the hypocrisy, the whining, and the crass commercialism of releasing numerous remasters and compilations? Well, you have that in Grand Magus – minus the loincloths and Joey DeMaio’s scowl. It was, however, an interesting journey to get to this point. Grand Magus first formed under the name Smack with JB Christoffersson and Mats Skinner, changing the name after drummer Trisse Liefvendah came on board. After a successful demo release, they appeared on a 7″ split with Spiritual Beggars (whom JB would later provide vocals for).
Grand Magus (2001), Monument (2003), Wolf’s Return (2005)
Their self-titled debut album did not appear until 2001 and was produced by Rise Above Records. It’s interesting to go all the way back and listen to this now, knowing what Grand Magus would become. Heavily influenced by sister band Spiritual Beggars as well as early Black Sabbath, it comes across mostly as bluesy stoner metal. Even still, the lyrical themes certainly point to the band’s love of the Norse-style epic.
This was followed two years later by Monument, which many still consider a quintessential doom album, and, as Christoffersson himself points out, the band’s only “true” doom offering. Steady chugging bass riffs accompany still-bluesy crooning, sounding a bit like Cathedral. You can almost sense JB’s vocal chords chomping at the bit to break free, but instead constrained by the slow, plodding rhythm. The power is there, beneath the surface.
Now, while I’ve been dipping my toe into doom more and more these days, I’ll be the first to admit those two albums don’t do much for me. Their third effort is a suitable title for what would bring us the beginnings of Grand Magus’ true metal sound. Right from the MUCH faster opening riff of “Kingslayer,” you know you’re not dealing with traditional doom anymore. What follows is the band’s first leanings toward the epic and the powerful, with tracks like “Blood Oath” (a stellar driving tune) and the aforementioned opener. Wolf’s Return still featured mostly slower, chugging doom-like tunes, but thanks to a tour alongside Cathedral and Electric Wizard, Grand Magus started to build some steam.
Iron Will (2008)
Their next album really sealed the deal on their transition to true metal. With the departure of drummer Trisse Liefvendah, Sebastian “Seb” Sippola joined for their first big hit. Iron Will is a tour-de-force that put Grand Magus on the map, receiving critical acclaim and the top spot on Metal Hammer’s “Soundcheck” for 2008.
Iron Will is simply a well put-together record. For the first time, JB really lets his voice go, soaring to new heights on “Like the Oar Strikes the Water” and “I Am the North.” More importantly though, the band trades in its plodding doomy riffs for catchy, mighty ones, and the underlying bass churns along like some great beast, keeping your gut in the game no matter how gallopy the rhythm gets. While just about every track shines, “Iron Will” is the high point, but I’ll suggest the closer instead, because holy hell is it MIGHTY.
Hammer of the North (2010)
The success of Iron Will led to the band signing with Roadrunner Records, touring with Motorhead, and releasing what many consider their best work. Hammer of the North trims the fat and boils the band down to its essence. Christoffersson now hits a confident stride as one of the best vocalists in all of metal, even throwing in the odd Dickenson-esque scream, and every track beats you over the head with crushing riffs. It is perhaps more simplistic, but as we will see, that’s when Grand Magus are at their best. The opening track, “I – The Jury” is typically used as the band’s live set opener, while “Ravens Guide Our Way” and “Mountains Be My Throne” are popular staples. The entire album is a spectacular fist-pumping listen, but if I have to narrow it down I might as well suggest my favourite. Just listen to how that gentle strumming intro slowly but surely rolls into one of the mightiest riffs ever driven to mortal ears at 1:05!
The Hunt (2012) and Triumph and Power (2014)
Now firmly established as leaders in good old fashioned powerful heavy metal for the twenty-first century, Seb parted ways with the band and was replaced by Spiritual Beggars’ Ludde Witt on drums. This record, while certainly not hated, gets a bit of flack for simultaneously being “lazy” and “too experimental,” depending on who you ask. I prefer to lean towards the latter; regardless of how Grand Magus was progressing toward powerful, epic metal, there was always a little tiny bit of doom left at the base. The odd track on the last three records still slowed things down, not to mention the gentle interludes that were commonplace in all their albums, mixing Norse-influenced hymns with bass-laden diddies to give you a breather in between all that MIGHT. The Hunt has plenty of that might, with stellar riffs on tracks like “Starlight Slaughter” and “Storm King.” But it also has interesting introspective moments like tying slower, almost chant-like lyrics. This experimentation is most notable on “Son of the Last Breath,” which has JB singing what might be Grand Magus’ first-ever “ballad”, for the first three minutes and thirty seconds that is, until the drums come crashing back in and the heavy riffs begin. By the end of the near-seven minute track, the band is literally chanting “BLESS THE MIGHTY THOR! PREPARE YOURSELVES FOR WAR!” You can just picture a bunch of drunken Vikings in a long hall, swinging tankards of mead around while they sing along. Frankly, I like it. But after such a concise, clean album like Hammer of the North, I can see why some may be a little less enamoured. I encourage you to give “Son of the Last Breath” a listen and give it a chance. It’s different, and it’s great.
Grand Magus is nothing if not prolific, releasing an album just about every two years on the trot. It’s safe to say that Triumph and Power is the start of their “modern” sound – that is, Manowar-worship, but in a good way! Perhaps acknowledging some of the more controversial work on The Hunt, the band once again turned to straight up, well, triumph and power. I’ve heard it said that “every fast Grand Magus song is great” but this is the album where even their more chanty, chuggy tracks are anthems just begging to be sung along to in a live setting. The opener, “On Hooves of Gold” is JUST cheesy enough, starting with a slow, haunting chant and then crashing into a galloping riff to accompany simple, powerful lyrics punctuated by JB’s vocals going down to a slightly deeper register. Virtually every other track is a catchy collection of crushing riffs and themes of battle, conquest, and glory, but the trio still managed to sneak in some interesting experimentation with a couple of slow interludes and even a war drum track by Ludde in “Ymer.” While any of the “big” tunes will get you in the mood to wield a battle axe, the title track is easily the most powerful, thanks to a particularly distorted crunchy riff smashing you over the head right from the zero mark. Has JB ever sounded more righteous? It’s as if they wrote the song JUST for him to show off.
Sword Songs (2016)
And so we come to 2016 with Grand Magus at the height of their powers. Doom fans have basically been left behind. In recent interviews, Christoffersson has noted the easy comparisons to Manowar, but simply embraces them now. It’s hard to find a picture of him without a sword in his hand, and he’s recently taken up weight-lifting (the better to wear leather and spikes). They enjoy Norse mythology, they enjoy the old Eddic tales of valour and heroism, and they’re not afraid to show it. Their latest effort takes the bombast and epic tone of Triumph and Power and turns it up to 11 while cleaning everything up in the process. It’s a bit more aggressive, but it fully understands its roots now, even nodding to Manowar in “Master of the Land” with the line “Into glory ride!” Above it all, JB’s vocals carry the confidence necessary to make the lyrics not seem utterly cheesy. Perhaps most improved, however, is Ludde Witt’s percussion, which has really come into its own and is no longer overshadowed by the riffs.
Again, is it simple? Sure, but there’s plenty of tech-death to go around. For many of us, this is exactly what we saw and loved in Manowar during their heyday, and what’s been lost in metal for a long time. But thanks to Grand Magus, we now have up-and-coming true metal bands like Visigoth, Scythia, and Sellsword bringing triumph, glory, and above all, fun back to a new generation. So raise a horn of mead and chant along with us!
Thanks again to Tigeraid for this poser-slaying edition of The Porcelain Throne. If you’re new here, this is a guest column where you show off your knowledge of a lesser-discussed band. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your submissions or questions.