Crystal Coffin – The Starway Eternal Review

I’ve often stated that more than any other form of contemporary music, black metal is good at conveying abstract emotion rather than concrete narratives. It’s why, for many of us, the fact that we don’t understand a single word being sung isn’t a problem: the lyrics don’t matter (and are sometimes best left undisturbed, to be frank). This abstraction thrives on allowing personal interpretations of an aesthetic, but can flounder when conveying meaning through traditional story-telling. To put it another way: telling a complex story, when you’ve hobbled yourself by relying upon unintelligible shrieks and howls—and operating in the limited emotional bandwidth of fury and contempt—is like cooking a complex dish without basic ingredients. Or, indeed, the pan itself. None of this has held Vancouver metallers, Crystal Coffin, back in the slightest. The Starway Eternal is ambitious, progressive and has a (helluva) story to tell. But have they crippled themselves by choosing to tell it in this unfriendly medium?

The narrative goes like this. It’s 1986. A lonely operator at the (unexploded) Chernobyl power station discovers a portal behind a defunct console. This portal links to a distant solar system. Determined to find gods beyond the physical, the operator enters, but her search is futile; the cosmos is empty. In the meantime, Chernobyl—and her portal home—has exploded. The only way back is to fall to earth, but in doing so, she is consumed by fire as she enters the atmosphere. Told through traditional black metal aesthetics with an emphasis on melody rather than atmosphere, when it works (and it works most of the time), it’s fascinating and compelling. If the music doesn’t always match the heady narrative, it rarely holds it back, either.

The Starway Eternal fundamentally succeeds because it escapes the shackles of the strict confines black metal places upon it without disrespecting the genre. While it sometimes takes its time, there are plenty of memorable moments that are absolutely worth the effort to get to. The midpoint, instrumental breakdown of “Shapeshifter Huntsman,” replete with synthesizers and strings, is gorgeous and ethereal, capturing the wondrous trip to the stars. “The Starway Eternal” has a staccato, rapid-fire riff that enters in the second third that morphs into a gigantic, post-metal finale that would make Wolves in the Throne Room proud. “The Descent” captures the pathos of a doomed attempt to return home. Excellent ideas like these are scattered throughout The Stairway Eternal and they add up to a collection that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The major issue with The Starway Eternal is that significant portions of some of the songs are curiously static. Considering the ambitious theme and obviously progressive aims of Crystal Coffin, this is both surprising and disappointing. Sure, there are blast-beats and screeched vocals, but for long periods these are accompanied by basic chugged chords with minor variations here and there. These sections are likely expository—the main bulk of the story must be told somewhere—but they drag too many of the songs (“Skeletons,” “Console of Horror”) into a slightly bland nosedive. Most are able to recover, but unless you are concentrating hard, your mind is likely to wander for periods of time, making a manageable 43-minute album feel curiously long and somewhat anodyne. The good news is that even the boring parts are performed enthusiastically and energetically, which temporarily hides their repetitive nature. The bad news is that the weaker tracks are concentrated in the middle section, giving the collection an unbalanced feel, rescued somewhat by two very strong closers.

Crystal Coffin are onto something here. Original stories feel rare in metal, but this is one of them. The band manages, within the strict confines of black metal, to tell their expansive narrative successfully and meaningfully. That it makes any sense at all is remarkable. That it is moving and compelling is a minor miracle. If the music doesn’t quite match the ambition of the story, and isn’t quite as original, well, that’s no great sin when it is performed as sincerely as it is here. The Starway Eternal has proved me wrong: it is entirely possible to tell a great story with black metal.

 


Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: A Beast in the Field
Websites: crystalcoffin.bandcamp.com  |  business.facebook.com/Crystal-Coffin
Releases Worldwide: October 15th, 2021

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