My Dying Bride and Anathema invented what we now think of as the goth-tinged doom/death genre back in the early 90s with their respectively earth-shaking debuts. Though many bands have subsequently tried their hand at the style, few have nailed the original sound and mood as well as Draconian. Helmed by Anders Jacobsson, they’ve released a serious of beautiful and depressive works like Arcane Rain Fell, Turning Seasons Within and 2011s A Rose for the Apocalypse. A major part of their success was how effectively they utilized the whole “beauty and the beast” vocal gimmick. Although the concept has been done to death and back, it always worked like a charm for Draconian, largely due to the angelic and fragile vocals of Lisa Johansson. Sovran sees Lisa depart and Heike Langhans assume the role of beauty to Anders Jacobsson’s beast, and while I prefer the former’s voice, the song writing here is so haunting and beautiful it scarcely makes a difference.
Sovran offers a lot of what fans have come to expect from the band but this time the female vocals are more prominent than ever before and there’s a noticeable shift toward a more goth-centric sound, continuing the drift away from their raw doom/death roots. However, opener “Heavy Lies the Crown” still delivers a monolithic slab of gloom and hopelessness with weepy, forlorn riffs assaulting the listener. These are dressed up with hauntingly beautiful harmonies as Heike and Anders trade dueling vocal lines amid the nothingness of despair. Heike has a voice much like Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) and she does a fine job sounding heartsick and emotionally destitute while Anders roars away with his typically grim, low-register death vocals. “The Wretched Tide” features even more morose riffs that remind me equally of Novembers Doom and While Heaven Wept and the atmosphere they weave is exquisitely sad and tragic.
The best cuts come toward the album’s mid-point with “Pale Tortured Blue” being an instant contender for Song o’ the Year. It’s an emotionally powerful doomer with traces of vintage My Dying Bride and a large amount of Tuomas Saukkonen’s melancholy riffing style throughout. The lead at 2:30 is completely gorgeous and sad, and when Anders growls “I will raise a statue in the wilderness. It will find its way to your dreams” I have no clue what he means but it feels important when paired with the massive and tasty doom riffs and I hope that statue looks like this. “Stellar Tombs” suffers from a slightly clunky opening but quickly settles into a haunting and stunning song full of emotion and gravitas. The riffs borrow from old Cemetery and Saturnus and Heiki delivers a delicate performance that perfectly offsets Anders’ imposing growls. “Dusk Mariner” rounds out a touching series of songs with a slight Mandylion vibe and that’s always a very good thing. The cumulative effect of these few tunes is like someone stabbing a big old Scandinavian icicle in the part of your brain that generates happy thoughts. It’s going to take time to learn to laugh again.
The back-end gets significantly more gothy on “Dishearten” and “River Between Us” and though this means much less heaviness, it still works. “Dishearten” benefits from a sweeping but somber chorus that really sticks, and “River Between Us” is just a beautiful song regardless of genre. There’s a definite shift toward a goth-metal style evident throughout Sovran, but I get the feeling it’s these later tracks that show where the band will be heading in the future for better or worse.
Aside from the occasion weak transition or poorly phrased riff, the songs are all extremely well-written and performed for maximum emotional impact. The overall level of writing slightly surpasses that of A Rose for the Apocalypse, which I still love, but concede I may have slightly overrated in my days as a young metal scribe. Both are great albums, but Sovran pushes the needle ever so slightly closer to excellent despite the reduction in heaviness.
While I was put off at first by the loss of Lisa Johansson and by Heike’s more stereotypical vocal style, she won me over and proved she can carry Lisa’s torch and keep Draconian going in the right direction. She has a lovely voice, emotes pain and suffering quite well and sounds great paired with Anders. It’s definitely the guitars that elevate the music this time though, with Johan Ericson (DoomVS) and Daniel Arvidsson (Mammoth Storm) dropping a depressive state the size of Texas on your heads. From the crushing doom riffs to the sweet, sad harmonies and the more direct goth-metal leads, they are masters of all. This is a beautiful album, plain and simple.
Draconian have been on a major roll since 2003 and it continues here with more sadness per square inch than most gothic death/doom bands could manage. I dread seeing them drift much farther from their doom/death roots, but I can’t find much to fault here. Check this out.