Candlemass‘ 1986 debut Epicus Doomicus Metallicus had a big impact on my young metal mind and made me a lifetime convert to Leif Edling’s concept of what doom metal should sound like. Decades later, he surprised me again with his Avatarium debut and how it leveraged the prodigious vocal gifts of Jennie-Ann Smith to create a refreshing take on the classic doom template. While I expected The Girl With the Raven Mask to be a quality follow-up, I wasn’t prepared for how freaking fantastic it truly is! This tops their debut in every way and allows Jennie-Ann to shine in a different and much brighter light on songs that jump out at you like a crazy cat lady, hurling feral felines until she has your undivided attention. It’s a much more wide open, free-form album, approximating retro progressive doom with jazz fusion. That’s a tough concept to imagine and it’s a strange machine indeed, but a great one.
The opening title track goes for the throat from note one, demanding your attention and plowing you over with fat, aggressive doom riffs. When Jennie-Ann comes in, all dials move to red. She has such an enchanting, captivating voice – as close as it gets to a real life siren – often gentle, but able to sound edgy and even a little scary. She reminds me of a young Ann Wilson (Heart) and she delivers a skull-caving performance on this irresistibly rocking doom tune. Follow-up “The January Sea” is easily one of the best songs you’ll hear this year. It’s doom through the prism of a tripped-out Jefferson Starship concert circa 1968 and Jennie-Ann channels Grace Slick’s eerie and seductive power, hopscotching between menace and melancholy as the music marinates in the psychedelic rock of the past, replete with fuzzed out solos and Hammond organ swells. It’s a powerfully emotionally and strangely beautiful song and the chorus is sheer brilliance – sweet and sad in a way doom almost never pulls off.
But wait; “Pearls and Coffins” is also amazing, sounding like a gorgeously downcast ballad from the 60s fused with subtle jazz influences, especially in the vocals. The chorus is an absolute triumph and the song inexorably drags you back to the days of hippies and flower power. But is it doom, you ask? Maybe not, but who cares!
The rest of the album is great too and quite diverse – from the haunting “Hypnotized” to the very Catherdral-esque riff-fest of “Run Killer Run,” and the odd American folk mixed with indie rock of “Iron Mule.” The album winds out with “The Master Thief” which sounds like something you’d hear in a dark, smokey jazz club.It’s here Jennie-Ann fully unleashes her jazz cabaret tendencies for a smoldering, heartfelt performance. There are mild doom riffs floating in and out, but this is much different than any doom you’ve ever heard.
At the risk of earning myself a restraining order, I can’t stop singing Jennie-Ann’s praises. She impressed me on the debut, but she’s a absolute revelation here, making every song come alive and crackle with sultry energy. Sometimes she reminds me a bit of Jex Thoth (Jessica Bowen) and the aforementioned Ann Heart, but she really has her own unique style and it’s perfect for what Leif Edling is doing with this material. He seems to be trying to bridge all his various projects (Candlemass, Krux, Abstrakt Algebra) into one fully-realized, wide-open musical vehicle and he’s knocked it out the park with this album. Alongside Jennie-Ann, guitarist Marcus Jidell (Soen) does amazing work, offering up fat doom riffs and some positively smoking solos with a big foot in the 60s psychedelic scene. The solo breaks on “The January Sea,” “Hypnotized,” “The Master Thief” are perfect and he’s great at underplaying for maximum effect. Carl Westholm also deserves praise for his moody keyboards which drench the songs in a warm, nostalgic feel much like the recent Opeth output.
The sound is also very warm, organic and inviting, like something recorded in the early 70s. The mix is fine and everyone can be heard clearly. I was actually surprised with the DR6 score and you can rest assured, it won’t impede your enjoyment of this monster one bit. The only thing keeping this from a perfect score is the slight dip in quality after the first three monstrous tunes.
You may be looking at the Album o’ the Year right here, folks. It’s definitely the one that grabbed me the most so far in 2015 and it will grab you too. It’s not a traditional doom album, but it seems Leif decided the genre was due for another shake up. Well played, good sir. Do not attempt to leave the hall.