What a long, strange trip it’s been, eh friends? That pretty much describes the career arc of the doom metal institution that is Candlemass. After a classic debut and three outstanding releases helmed by the mad monk Marcolin, Leif Edling’s doom troupe has watched their stock rise and fall enough to make the average trader leap to his death in abject frustration. Along the way, we’ve seen reunions, disunions, attempts at power metal and retro 70s rock. With the final excommunication of Messiah Marcolin and the arrival of Robert Lowe from the esteemed Solitude Aeturnus, it seemed a match made in heaven (and hell) for all fans of the genre. Sadly, the union of Lowe and Leif never resulted in the momentous material it seemed to promise. King of the Grey Islands surely had some inspired moments, but fewer than expected. Death Magic Doom was a mixed bag and a step backward. That leads us here, to the end of the journey. Psalms for the Dead is supposedly the last Candlemass album, though I always take these pronouncements with a grain of salt and a flagon of beer. As a huge fan of their earlier material, I sincerely hoped they would go out on the bestest, doomiest note possible. Sadly, Psalms is merely a good, not great swan song. Oddly, it isn’t all that doomy either. Go figure.
Starting off with the tried and true Candlemass riffing style, “Prophet” chugs along at a mid-tempo as Lowe’s powerful and clear wail warns of evil this and danger that. Before long though, the song ramps up into a traditional metal rocker akin to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. It’s classy and well done, with tons of hammond organ and stylish soloing, but the chorus is a total downer. Simply repeating the song title three or four times doesn’t make for a compelling chorus. “The Sound of Dying Demons” is more in line with their doom roots and drags along at a grinding pace, but gets undercut by another “repeat song title many times” chorus and cheesy, horror movie keyboards. It feels under-cooked and underwhelming despite Lowe’s quality vocals. “Dancing in the Temple (of the Mad Queen Bee)” attempts to mine the same trippy, drug addled subject matter as Jefferson Airplane‘s “White Rabbit” and has a psychedelic 70’s rock influence. It works fairly well but lacks the gravitas of their classic doom style. “Waterwitch” dooms it up with a slow and atmospheric style, and Lowe sounds great here. However, the chorus of “waterwitch, waterwitch, waterwitch, waterwitch” won’t stick in anyone’s head, no matter how many times they hear it. That’s just lazy writing.
Things do pick up significantly on the album’s back half, with several well done numbers like “The Lights of Thebe” (which sound like Nightfall-era material) and the title track (which has a legitimately catchy chorus). The standout is “The Killing of the Sun,” which sports a monstrously simple but irresistible riff that will echo through eternity (in your head) and a nicely rocking chorus to add to the earworm factor. Psalms finishes much stronger than it starts, and both “Siren Song” and “Black as Time” are well done (despite the cheeky and overdone spoken word segments in the latter).
I love Robert Lowe’s vocals, and while I prefer Candlemass with Messiah or even original throat Johan Lanquist, he brings a lot of power and class to the proceedings. Likewise, Mats Bjorkman and Lars Johansson acquit themselves well, with some quality riffs and stellar solos. In fact, the solos frequently are the highlights of the songs (3:19 of “Prophet” for example). There’s also a lot of interesting keyboard/organ fills as the album plays out. Usually it adds texture but sometimes it gets in the way. What really holds things back from greatness (and very goodness) is the songwriting. Some of this stuff just feels uninspired and underdone (this was a problem on Death Magic Doom as well). The choruses on nearly half the songs are flat-out weak and add nothing to otherwise decent tunes. I know even the mighty Maiden eventually fell victim to the “repeat song title as chorus” disorder, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting for the listener.
The production is good and the guitars sound appropriately massive. The keyboards have just the right level and blend with the guitars perfectly. Everything sounds clear as a church bell but raw enough to please the metal ear. If only they amped up the song writing to match the sound…
This is a good album by a once great band. While I wanted them to go out on top, this is hardly an embarrassment. The second half is way better than the first and there’s some lackluster material scattered about, but I doubt anyone was expecting a full return to Epicus Doomicus Metallicus or Nightfall. Fare-thee-well Candlemass, your best days may be behind you, but I’ll still miss ya. Love, Steel Druhm.