The AMG promo sump is a murky, fetid cesspool, and you don’t always find exactly what you expected when delving into its brackish, primordial ooze. Swedish two-man band Sons of Crom were clearly labelled as “epic heavy metal” by some AMG toadie, which to my mind conjures images of Atlantean Kodex while triggering my involuntary salivation reflex. The band’s second full-length, The Black Tower is many things, with epic being one of them, but they’re quite far afield from what I was expecting. They play a bizarre amalgam of first and second wave black metal mixed with a lot of Hammerheart-styled Viking fare and old timey 80s metal, and things jump around from genre to genre in strange, awkward ways. You’ll hear traces of Emperor, Ereb Altor and Bathory, as well as Annihilator and Iron Maiden, sometimes all in the same damn song. That’s a lot to take in and process, but the Crom boys have some chops and enough charm to pull much of it off, and there’s no denying the schizoid enjoyment factor. Chaos is a ladder, you see.
After a mood setting instrumental that runs a bit too long, things really get moving with the album’s longest piece, the 8-plus-minute “In Fire Reborn.” You’re immediately greeted with furiously blasting black metal that segues into dramatic Viking chants and clean singing reminiscent of early Ereb Altor. This latter element does help things achieve a fairly epical sense of size and scope, which I enjoy greatly. From there the band abruptly dives into 80s traditional metal with plenty of Maiden-esque riffing but they anchor it to a mid-tempo plod typical in Viking metal. This ends up feeling awkward and the quasi-clean vocals are quiet shaky, amateurish and unpolished, especially when the singer tries to hit the higher notes. The song is saved by a slobberknocker mid-section where the guitar-work goes off the hook and approximates Jeff Waters at his best. These six-string pyrotechnics are a ton of fun and nearly make one forget the problems with the song they’re embedded within.
The band then dips into somber, Bathory-esque balladry complete with acoustic guitar and weeping violins on “Legacy.” This one could sit on Twilight of the Gods and be a high point. Staying in their Bathory wheelhouse, they deliver the Viking-centric “Black Wings Up High” and later “Viimeinen Laki,” both highly enjoyable and meaty trve set pieces. The latter seamlessly blends powerhouse Viking metal with vintage Borknagar and Vintersorg for the album’s greatest achievement and best song. In fact, it may be one of the best song’s I’ve heard this year and it makes me want to take on a horde of meth-abusing orcs single-handedly. Things wind out with the lush instrumental “Rebirth of the Sun” which reintroduces the guitar/violin refrain heard in “Legacy” to great effect. This sounds like a lost piece to the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack and it’s a thing of beauty.
As good as some of the material here is, and some of it is actually great, the album as a whole gets held back by a lack of cohesion and occasional weakness in the performances. The clean singing at times is very effective (“Legacy”) and other times really bad (“Fall of Pandemonium”). There are also some odd transitions that disrupt song flow at key moments. In better news, The Black Tower is blessed with a rich and full production which really benefits the various genre pools they wade into. The acoustic guitar segments are especially crisp, lush and striking. At a tight 43 minutes, the eclectic material flows by quickly and the whole thing wraps up while you’re still trying to figure out what you just heard.
Janne Posti handles guitar, bass and keyboards, while sharing vocal duty with drummer Iiro Sarkki. Posti’s guitar-work is the glue that holds everything together and he’s a very talented player. His battle-ready riffing embiggens the spirit and his acoustic work rivals the best of SIG:AR:TYR. His use of keyboards is also deft and adds to the grandiose atmosphere. As mentioned above, the vocals are a mixed bag, with some very effective chanting up to Wotan. Whomever does the blackened rasps manages a pretty respectable Vintersorg impression and though used sparingly, these harsh vocals work quite well. The sour notes are there though and when they appear, it’s pretty rough going.
The Black Tower is a hot mess of an album that tries to do a million things, and somehow manages most of them well. It’s also a lot of fun and at times, quite stunning. If nothing else it serves to plant Sons of Crom firmly on Steel‘s Metal Detector of Steel and I’ll be watching them very closely from now on. Not ready for something so…diverse? Crom laughs at your small-mindedness. He laughs from his mountain.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Nordvis Produktion (EU) | Bindrune Recordings (NA)
Websites: sonsofcrom.bandcamp.com | sonsofcrom.com | facebook.com/sonsofcromofficial
Releases Worldwide: August 18th, 2017