Crimson Swan is a German atmospheric funeral doom band from Hamburg, Germany. With one EP under their belt from 2012, Unlit marks the band’s full-length debut. Readers of this site are likely aware that funeral doom and I rarely see eye-to-eye. My case of Angry Metal Attention Deficit Disorder™ is well-documented and as a general rule records that don’t pop out speedy tracks littered with engaging virtuoso performances or progressive wankery send me out to do what Steel Druhm calls kindly “moss gazing.” This isn’t to say that doom never moves me, though. I have a soft spot for Theatre of Tragedy‘s earliest stuff, My Dying Bride, The 11th Hour (put out a new record Warby!) and a few others. But my tastes are specific; picky even. When it comes to doom metal, expert songwriting, powerful builds, smart uses of dynamics and—crucially—good melody are necessities for keeping me mentally engaged.
I was as surprised as anyone when I started listening to Crimson Swan‘s debut album Unlit and fell instantly in love. I knew within 5 minutes of Unlit‘s first track that it was special, and would sum up why by saying this: Crimson Swan‘s sound is like if My Dying Bride met Agalloch and had a little German lovechild (let’s call him… Üter!). Üter’s riffs are thick, fat and bone-crunchingly heavy with an oppressive and slightly muddy production. While there are moments that pummel and crunch, huge stretches of Unlit is made up of whole note power chords at 60 bpm, a caricature of funeral dirges and plunging into Ahab territory. These moments lose me with so many bands, but Unlit is gripping—a record full of tension and a yearning for closure and resolution.
Unlike so many of their peers, Crimson Swan has a melodic side that speaks to a writing sensibility that so many doom bands lack. It’s not just the melodies are good, it’s that they serve the purpose of resolving the increasingly building tension that each song creates. Opener “Fade to Nothingness”—easily one of the best songs I’ve heard this year—starts with a single line of a melody played on a piano before giving way to the opening riff and priming the listener for a payoff that comes literally 2 minutes later. Title track “Unlit” opens with vocalist Simon’s1 best Aaron Stainthorpe impression, before pushing into harmonized cleans. When these melodies resurface again—seriously 3 minutes later after—it’s practically cathartic.
In addition to using melody effectively, Crimson Swan also use harmony with the same skill. Not only does this separate them from the herd, but savvy use of harmony and counter-melody is a weakness of mine that Unlit exploits. The title-track “Unlit” features (slightly off) 3-part harmonies that work in spite of their warts. “Words of Perdition” features beautiful harmonies from one Imanthi Gräflich Monard—a local singer with a gorgeous voice—whose tone is a magnificent blend with Simon’s unsteady cleans.
Unlit‘s greatest strength, unfortunately, is also its biggest weakness. Your own love of funeral doom will dictate whether or not you agree with me, but there are a few places that maybe are drawn a little too far out. “A Waterfall of Sorrow” slows the record down a bit too much after an opening track that is among the finest of the year. “Accusations” doesn’t suffer from its length, but it’s the one time where the vocal harmonies are too undisciplined for me to enjoy—just off enough to cause my skin to crawl. Closer “Voidhaven” is good, but it also adds 8 minutes to an album filled with long songs and could likely have replaced “A Waterfall of Sorrow” as the second track or been taken off without hurting the album too much–even if it is an admittedly good closer. These moments demonstrate that Crimson Swan is dropping their first full-length record, and I suppose it’s only reasonable to expect rough edges from a novice band.
Still, Unlit is a striking record with 6 tracks that average around 8 and a half minutes a piece. The band demonstrates how white space in music can be used to increase tension, but have compositions that also exemplify the importance of the resolution of that tension and the power of dynamics. Unlit‘s music is dynamic2, depressive—gothic, even—and filled with sorrow, longing and anxiety. Crimson Swan is a band to watch, and I’ll be following their developments with great interest.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kb/s mp3 [CBR]
Label: Quality Steel Records
Websites: crimsonswan.de | facebook.com/crimsonswan | crimsonswan.bandcamp.com
Release Date: March 13th, 2015 [Available via Quality Steel’s website]