I was never a particularly religious youngster, but part of my schooling involved attending church twice a week. While the actual Christian message never really took root, I was always entranced by the ceremony. The rhythmic, hypnotic chanting; the bitter exhalation of the wafting incense, the capering sunlight through stained-glass windows; the soothing male voices of the choir—these are imprinted on my brain to this day. Given black metal’s somewhat… complicated history with religion and churches, it’s surprising that the inversion of the traditional liturgy is relatively uncharted territory for the genre. Batushka, of course, mined this vein to great success with 2015’s Litourgiya, but what if I told you there’s a band that’s been honing their skills in this particular sand-pit for 25 years? Crimson Moon originated as a single-man black metal project in 1994, the creation of Scorpios Adroctonus. In 1998, he moved from America to Germany and expanded the project. But the output of Crimson Moon has been sparse, with only three albums since it was formed. The last was 2016’s Oneironaut, which impressed many (including our own Al Kikuras) with its expansive, but occasionally excessive, approach. Now the band is back with Mors Vincit Omnia (Death Conquers All) in, by their standards, record time. Is that occult itch about to be scratched?
Crimson Moon play an intoxicating brand of black metal that solders the influence of second-wave giants like Sacramentum or Dissection to the more modern sensibilities of the aforementioned Batushka. The aesthetic is focused on creating a foreboding and menacing mood rather than on ensnaring the listener with catchy hooks (although there are plenty of these). Mors Vincit Omnia mostly succeeds because it absolutely nails the atmosphere while retaining just enough variation and interesting ideas to keep the listener engaged.
The opening pair of tracks, “Vanitas” and “Altar of Azrael” give a fair idea of what expect for the rest of the album: the juxtaposition of blistering guitars and wretched vocals with clean chants and ominous organ strains. This works very effectively to establish a profoundly disquieting mood. While the two compositions often alternate, there is frequent overlap, further cementing the notion that, in Crimson Moon‘s furious eyes, the distinction between “pure” and “evil” is often blurred to the point of inseparability. The repetition of riffs and the consistent, rhythmic drumming (courtesy of new member Blastum) succeed in mimicking the hypnotic effect of a forbidden ceremony unfolding before your eyes. Like any such ceremony, each part is necessary for the others to make sense, and in this regards, Mors Vincit Omnia is best appreciated as a whole. Although there isn’t a huge variety between tracks, most of them retain enough of an identity for the album to avoid becoming an inseparable blur. This is aided by a quality mix that gives the individual instruments room to breathe while maintaining an eerie mood throughout.
The major problem with Mors Vincit Omnia is something that has bedeviled previous Crimson Moon efforts: occasional bloat. The line between repetition that is hypnotic and compelling, and repetition that is boredom-inducing, is razor-thin, and not something the band has always mastered. While the aforementioned tracks walk the line perfectly, there are others that are not quite as successful. “Upon the Pale Horse” is a tasty four-minute song, trapped in an eight-minute long body. The track is not bad by any means, but the same riffs, repeated frequently, are just not interesting enough to justify its length. “Parcae – Trinity of Fates” shares the same problem, and there is the persistent sense that some judicious pruning would have resulted in an even more compelling final product.
Crimson Moon has released a very respectable effort with Mors Vincit Omnia. The marriage of old school black metal sensibilities with hypnotic liturgical elements has never sounded more organic or deliciously malevolent. It’s a step up from their previous albums and provides all the dark thrills and atmosphere any fan of the genre could want. For part of its run-time, it’s the album that Batushka’s Panihida should have been. Nagging quibbles, however, prevent it from achieving true greatness. Folk who enjoyed their previous albums will devour this one, and some new fans will be seduced. When I listen, I can smell the incense and feel the contamination on my skin. Church services I attended were never this much fun.