When it comes to prog-power, Anubis Gate has been the first name in my Rolodex ever since 2005s A Perfect Forever found its way to my iron ears. Later albums like Andromeda Unchained and The Detached essentially wrote the book on how progressive power metal should sound, and I have an unhealthy fixation on both those slick platters of melodic metal. When ace vocalist Jacob Hansen left following The Detached, the band soldiered on and their self-titled 2011 release was still the act I knew and loved but with a slightly different tint. Though I wanted to love 2014s Horizons, it was just a bit too watered down and made me concerned the essential magic was slowly leaking out of the ship. After hearing rumors the new album would be a departure for the band, I had a nagging feeling that a great love affair might be headed for the rocks. After a 3 year wait, Covered in Black does indeed find the band in a different place musically and mentally. With subject matter revolving around the darker side of life and human nature, the music takes a turn for denser, heavier avenues, with more jagged edges than accessibly melodic hooks. At times it’s tough to recognize the band through all the grit and edge, but the core of their sound is still there, muddy and bloodied, but still intact.
The new approach is evident immediately as opener “Psychotopia” creeps in with unsettling harmonics and heavy, Fear Factory-esque staccato riffing. At first the clean, crisp vocals of Henrik Fevre provide the only link to their past, but as things progress, the classic Anubis Gate sound bleeds through the aggressive riffing and harder countenance. By the mid-point, it feels like the band is reversing course and fighting their way back to familiar melodic waters, only to be swept back out to sea again as the heaviness ratchets back up for the finale. Style shift or not, it’s quite an interesting song.
“The New Delhi Assassination” is another head-scratcher, steeped in Middle Eastern and Asian influences, draped with a somber, vaguely ominous energy, and blessed with an emotive vocal performance from Henrik. It feels like it’s just beginning to reveal its arcane secrets when it abruptly cuts off and jumps into The Combat,” which is another example of the “new” and heavier sound. While it has some rousing moments, the chorus feels awkward and even a bit grating, though it does scream “classic prog.”
The rest of the album is like a tug-of-war for the band’s soul, with cuts like the long-winded “Too Much Time” cleaving closely to the classic Anubis Gate style and plying the listener with more tasty hooks than a Bass Pro Shop™ super sale, while album centerpiece “Operation Cairo” goes all complex and opaque as if the goal was to pen more “important” and serious music. The good news is, it works and the song is a high point, shrewdly mixing dark tones, Middle Eastern influences and uber-accessible melodies in a way that allows its 9-minutes to float by without you checking your watch (do kids still wear those?). Closer “From Afar” is another interesting cut with a healthy undercurrent of later period Pink Floyd under-girding a regal, airy trip.
At almost 56 minutes, there’s definitely some chaff with all the prog-wheat. The one-two-three combination of “Black,” “Blacker” and “Blackest” suffers from some dead space and only the urgent, in-your-face “Black” really stands out and demands attention. The aforementioned “Too Much Time” bears a prophetic title, as it does in fact take up too much of it and needs serious trimming, as does “From Afar.” At times, all the newfound heaviness can feel a bit forced (“Blackest”), as if they don’t really mean it but needed a change of some sort. More often than not though, it’s incorporated quite well.
The band is enormously talented and this album, perhaps more than any other demonstrates it. Henrik has grown into the vocalist role admirably and manages to adjust to the darker tones with aplomb. The guitar-work from Kim Olesen and Michael Boldin is first-rate, and though they play it heavier than usual, their delicate melodic touches and beautiful solo-work are still present and very impressive.
Covered in Black may not be the album I was hoping for from Anubis Gate, but it’s hard to dispute the talent and effort that went into creating the material. It’s a definite grower and one that will not give up all its ghosts with cursory or inattentive spins. If your issue with the band’s prior output was a lack of heaviness, this may be what you were waiting for. Definitely worth a dedicated spin for the progressive-minded among us.