Black Crown Initiate murders me.
Check my most-played songs over the past six years, and you’ll see tracks from the band’s debut 2013 EP Song of the Crippled Bull as well as plenty of offerings from their first two full-length albums, The Wreckage of Stars (2014) and Selves We Cannot Forgive (2016). So when Black Crown Initiate dropped Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape Aug. 7 via Century Media Records, I cranked the volume to 11 and blissed out.
Spoiler alert: It rules.
Hilariously enough, my first listen of Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape came during a car ride to Chincoteague, Virginia, my wife Nicole sleeping in the passenger seat while I chugged along US-50 East. Simultaneously fighting back goosebumps and the urge to headbang and/or throw up the horns from behind the wheel proved difficult, but I (mostly) suppressed those primal urges and made it work.
From that first taste, I’ve listened — and re-listened and re-listened — to the album, giving it the proper time to digest. And each time I cycled through the album, I realized something: I wasn’t getting tired of it. At all.
Instead, I enjoyed it more with each playthrough.
Here’s the thing: Yes, Black Crown Initiate qualifies as “progressive death metal,” a genre that’ll immediately have many turning away and running to safety. I get that. But few — if any — bands in this realm are able to straddle the line between brutality and musicality like Black Crown Initiate. They’ve done this from Day 1, sandwiching soaring clean vocals and impossibly catchy hooks between blast-beat-and-growl-laden verses and bridges, giving a dynamic layer to the music that keeps you returning to the well, parched with pail in hand.
What’s perfect on ‘Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape’
Uhh … almost everything.
You can drill down and focus upon only the brutal elements — Hello, dat chorus in Sun of War — or on guitarist/vocalist Andy Thomas’ hooks — lookin’ at you this time, Trauma Bonds — but the beauty of Black Crown Initiate exists within the full package.
One of my best friends, my college roommate Blake Willard, put it best once, saying, “You can only ride the Harley so long before your ass hurts.” Blake is the king of analogies, and this one should be well received and understood by any metal lover. The brutality is incredible, sure. That’s ultimately why we’re here. At a minimum, we are partially here to get our faces melted.
But eventually, the rumble-rumble of that Harley wears you down, and you gotta hit a rest stop. You need to jump off, relax, stretch, maybe even call it a day and get a good night’s rest.
No metal band executes the Harley rest stop like Black Crown Initiate. None. Without fail, Black Crown Initiate senses that back getting a little tight, that lactic acid building in your forearms and shows mercy, launching into a melodic, beautiful, comforting chorus for you to sink into and recharge for the next run.
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Trauma Bonds stands out in this regard, but Years in Frigid Light and Holy Silence certainly satisfy in that department, as well. Actually … every song (minus the two interlude-types, Bellow and the album’s closer, He is the Path) showcases this structure flawlessly. Thomas’ songwriting hit a new level on Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape, and that fact is immediately apparent from the opener, Invitation.
It’s all there. For any band entering this genre, there will be an inclination for listeners or critics to say, “Oh, they sound like X” or “The guitars remind me of Y.” At this point, let’s try this one out: Black Crown Initiate sounds like Black Crown Initiate. Since that debut EP in 2013, they’ve stayed true to their sound, refining it and experimenting just enough to keep taking that next step forward as musicians.
Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape exemplifies that evolution perfectly. It’s simultaneously more sophisticated and catchier/easier to listen to than any of their prior releases, striking the perfect balance between radio-ready hooks and pit-inducing mayhem.
OK, so you’re saying it’s the perfect album?
Ehh … not exactly. It’s no doubt going down as one of my favorite albums of 2020, and it’s fair to say you can stretch that timeframe indefinitely into my past. It’s remarkable, and its spot in my regular rotation is secure.
The full album release underwhelmed. The album boasts nine tracks at 51 minutes of runtime. Two of those tracks, Bellow and He is the Path, provide some ambiance and serve to tie the overall feel and theme of the album together, so I hesitate to call them “filler,” but they’re certainly interludes and less-than-fully-constructed offerings. Those two combine for about five minutes of downtime on the album, giving you 46 minutes of fully crafted music.
Now, within that, Black Crown Initiate and/or Century Media’s marketing department misfired. The label released various tracks from the album throughout quarantine, hyping the Aug. 7 release date and giving listeners a little taste to keep them satisfied until the full entree arrived.
In doing so, though, they basically released the entire album. Five out of the remaining seven songs — Invitation, Years in Frigid Light, Death Comes in Reverse, Sun of War, and Holy Silence — debuted as singles before the full release. That means only tracks two and three — Son of War and Trauma Bonds — were truly NEW for thirsty listeners.
Some slight modifications were made from the singles to the album versions (most notably on Years in Frigid Light) but, overall, there’s a strong chance any fan of the band already devoured those singles ahead of time, leaving them a little wanting when the full album finally hit the shelves.
Does the album slay me every time I spin it? Absolutely.
Would it be even better if I hadn’t already heard five of the tracks multiple times before the album was released? Also yes.
Holy Silence is, for me, Black Crown Initiate’s most expertly written song to date, traversing various emotions and tones before climaxing with a dreamy interlude that leads into the best guitar solo the band’s ever recorded. Ethan McKenna absolutely crushed that one, showing that the band can lay down some technical chops with the best of ’em, as well.
Years in Frigid Light is probably my favorite song overall, although the entire first “chapter” of the album, tracks one through four, contains elements that may stand out as my “favorite” depending on my mood.
In all, Black Crown Initiate took an already lofty bar and elevated it with Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape. It’s not perfect — but you’ll struggle to find anything better within the genre.