(DGR wrote this review of the debut album by Black Crown Initiate from Pennsylvania, which will be released tomorrow — Sept 30.)
It feels like music moves in ten-plus-year generational cycles, especially when it comes to heavy metal. This seems stupidly obvious, but the fact that it still continues unabated is pretty spectacular — because it allows people to sit around and prognosticate like true intelligentsia when it comes to even the most banal of subjects. You’ll have discs that come out right about the time a new generation can pick up on it and have their minds blown. In turn, they draw heavy influence from that specific time frame, and when it becomes their own turn to take the stage, it’s like watching the previous cycle re-incarnate, combined with some of the current sounds that are popular. And so, the sound iterates, especially in the case of heavy metal, as things move incrementally in different directions.
The past few years. especially, have really put the various spectra of death metal into the spotlight as both tech-death and progressive death have seen numerous new entries from young bands, groups who over the past decade have taken in so much of what began in the early aughts and now seek to put their own mark on it. Reading, Pennsylvania’s own Black Crown Initiate are one of those bands who have seemingly had the stars align for them. They are a young band who succeeded in finding the almost perfect combination of songwriting talent, musicianship, and artistic bravery to stretch well beyond their own genre conventions and managed to make quite the loud entrance with last year’s EP Song Of The Crippled Bull. You could tell, especially by our own review, that if Song Of The Crippled Bull was anything to go by, Black Crown Initiate were going to have a lot of heat behind them.
And so, we find ourselves looking to the band’s label debut, The Wreckage Of Stars, and if you haven’t quite figured out where this introduction is heading yet, let’s summarize it for you: There is a reason you’ve probably been hearing a lot about Black Crown Initiate over the past year, and if Wreckage Of Stars is anything to go by, you’re going to be hearing a hell of a lot more of them in the years to come.
If you haven’t crossed paths with Black Crown Initiate before, you could get pretty close with defining them as a progressive death metal band. Like many bands in that sphere these days, their sound is an amalgamation of many different styles, all fused together with the deftness of an expert practitioner. They’ve got the heavy, beefy, chug-focused riffs of a -core band alongside the fretwork of a tech-death band, combined with the love of echo effects that post- bands like to have and some of the heavy-as-hell string bending riffs that are characteristic of the current dent scene — all employed with a sense of bravery which shows that the band don’t want to have just one specific sound and are willing to throw anything and everything they can into the mix.
They try everything on The Wreckage Of Stars to differentiate songs from each other, which means that the whole album is a journey through different exotic instruments on top of some some well-written death metal that, yes, even has some pop sensibilities and isn’t afraid to go for a big, sing-song heavy hook that is bound to bore its way into your skull before the damned song ends.
After the musical suite that was Song Of The Crippled Bull, Black Crown Initiate had quite the task ahead of them. For one, they had to come up with a whole album’s worth of material in the span of a year. No doubt these songs have been kicking around the band in some form or another, but it’s still an impressive feat that they managed to put out an album of Wreckage Of Stars’ quality so soon after their first release. While the album doesn’t have the kind of huge movement of music on which Crippled Bull was built, it is a collection of fantastic prog-death with enough bite and intensity to keep the headbanging going as you find yourself traversing the oceans and the cosmos as the band tackle a variety of subjects.
Wreckage Of Stars also contains some awesome musical highlights, as Crippled Bull did before it. While there isn’t a huge “holy shit!” moment of the kind that occurred in “Mountaintop”, where the chorus melody of that song is actually screamed out over a near-apocalyptic run of blasts — which is honestly one of my favorite musical moments over the past year — there are still some incredibly well-written moments that stick with the listener long after the song is done. Both lead-off singles, “Great Mistake” and “Withering Waves” have moments like that — both of them tied into Black Crown Initiate’s knack for vocal interplay.
Of course, we could spend every word of this review covering every single time the band go for some clean sung chorus, because man, do these guys have a talent for putting a huge hook on a song. Vocally, Wreckage Of Stars is an impressive work in its own right, a credit to the three-pronged combo of vocalists that the band uses — one that alternates between deep, low, and super-heavy growls, some well-sung sections, and some impressively high shrieks. “Great Mistake” in particular has a section right after the first chorus that sees everything in the song lined up to back a super-low and guttural growl, and “Withering Waves” has easily the catchiest chorus on the whole album. On top of that you have some impressive shrieking taking place in the song “To The Eye That Leads You”, the type that should appeal to folks who were huge fans of the screamed vocal melody from Crippled Bull that I brought up earlier.
“Eye That Leads You” also has some pretty impressive drum work, leading the listener away from the usual snare-blast combo for a pretty good chunk of the song in favor of some tribal tom work. “The Fractured One” is another that sees the drums getting pretty exploratory — seeking to cover as much real estate as possible on the kit up until the songs’ crowd-chant-built mid-section. “Linear” on the other hand, brings back the enormous blast-beat work propelled by some strong clean singing and comes at a moment when the album is starting to slow down just the tiniest bit. It’s a short track, but one that with its strong guitar lead and solo would be amazing to witness live right after another song. If anything, you could argue that Wreckage Of Stars is one super-long journey, built to be played live from front to back in the same way Crippled Bull was. Even as a seeming collection of insanely strong singles, the band have figured out how to make the disc flow so that it doesn’t become immediately apparent that it is such.
Progressive death metal is an interesting genre, if only because it is one that leaves itself open to a variety of different interpretations, where no two bands really sound the same but many seem to have similar aspirations. They all approach the music differently, and the genre is one that seems to be renewing itself with new blood every couple of years. Black Crown Initiate are one of the newest and strongest additions to that genre in some time. They merge a variety of styles together into one huge sound and are approachable to many different listeners. Their songs have so many different elements to grasp onto: If you happen to really like ambitious music, they’ve got you covered. You want that strong, arena-rock-worthy chorus? Black Crown have it in spades in six or seven of the songs on Wreckage Of Stars. You want the groove-happy, ultra-heavy death metal on which the North American scene has built its foundations? Black Crown have that, too.
It’s a testament to the musicians of the band that I can pick apart and identify so many elements of what makes up their sound, but the fact that I can see the gears turning doesn’t bother me one bit. With one album and an EP to their name, Black Crown Initiate prove themselves to be a well-oiled machine. From the super-heavy guitar work of Rik Stelzpflug and Andy Thomas to the monstrous low bellowing of vocalist James Dorton, the band have some top-quality pieces making up the overall machine, the insanely talented rhythm section of Nick Shaw and Jesse Beahler serving as the pistons that keep this giant contraption rolling on — and all of them get a big chance to demonstrate their talents on Wreckage Of Stars. They also benefit from an absolutely massive production, which makes Wreckage Of Stars sound like a huge album — a rare accomplishment for a group so early in their career.
With The Wreckage Of Stars, Black Crown Initiate have moved themselves to the forefront of a scene that’s already populated with a bunch of new, young death metal bands with very impressive releases early in their careers. Alongside Rivers of Nihil with this year’s slow motion apocalypse in The Conscious Seed Of Light and Ovid’s Withering’s Greek-mythology-inspired blastfest in last year’s Scryer’s Of The Ibis, the group have a couple of really strong compatriots in the modern prog-death sound that seems wrapped heavily in bass and low-tuned grooves. The Wreckage Of Stars may be the lighter of the three, but not by much, as the band show absolutely no fear in crushing the listener after some of the prettiest and catchiest singing this side of an Opeth disc.
The Wreckage Of Stars is a remarkably impressive label debut for Black Crown Initiate and one that I hope will be enormously successful for the band — because if the material the band have out now is an accurate portent of the future, we have an impressively creative group of individuals sitting in front of us and we need to get as much material from them as possible. The Wreckage Of Stars has a ton to offer to a variety of listeners, and I can see this disc easily becoming one whose name we’ll be seeing everywhere when the end-of-year list extravaganza unfolds across the metal blogosphere. You might as well just memorize the album art at the top of this review, because by the end of the year, you all are going to be sick of looking at it — but there will be a goddamned good reason for that. The Wreckage Of Stars comes highly recommended.
P.S.: What the hell do they have in the water in Reading, PA? Should we all be super-zoomed-in on this scene right now?
P.P.S.: Still not on Metal-Archives. Makes review research super fun.
The Wreckage of Stars will be released on September 30 by eOne Music and is available for order on iTunes. Listen to two album tracks below — and below you will also find a new music video that premiered today at Revolver.