As a longtime fan of Testament, that I’d somehow missed Dragonlord until now came as a bit of a surprise. Testament guitarist Eric Peterson founded the project as a way to showcase his kvlt kred, and released two albums in the 00’s that can loosely be described as Dimmu Borgir-adjacent. Since then, they’ve slogged through a quagmire of line-up changes, label problems, and scheduling conflicts. That Dominion is here at all is impressive. With Alex Bent (Trivium) and Lyle Livingston (Psypheria) at Peterson’s side, can the return of the ‘lord be enough to justify thirteen years of pain?
The truth of “Dominion” comes hard and fast: nope. Peterson bellows a hoary welcome while his frosty riffs beckon from a foreboding cave nestled somewhere deep in 1999. Livingston’s keys sit somewhere between Dimmu Borgir and Emperor, overlaying the proceedings with tones that flail somewhere between Very Seriovs Kvlt Metvl and a slice of Kraft American. It’s all very slick and well-presented, but utterly boring. Despite a clinical execution and meticulous composition, this is grilled cheese metal; chew, swallow, move on with your life. With few exceptions, the black metal struggles for relevance, undeveloped and distracted from by all of the other crap shoved atop it. Head-bobs must be coaxed out and are scared away easily. “The Discord of Melkor” allows an extensive symphonic section to derail one of the album’s better bits. “Northlanders” loses a similarly strong riff down the same black hole as its Ritalin. By its midpoint, the song is mired in a do-nothing hard rock direction capped by a shred-til-dead solo. The moment the solo fades, the track fades back to black as if Dr. Jekyll had no memory of Mr. Hyde’s night travails.
“Love of the Damned” belies a slithering Testament influence in the vocal harmony, and the echoing picks and hard chugs of the main direction sound more thrash than black metal. This is hardly an isolated occurrence; Dragonlord chuck the kitchen sink at Dominion in attempts to differentiate themselves from the “Dimmu Borgir clone” epithet leveled at them. However, the elements rarely work and get in the way when left unchecked. Ethereal guest vocals from Celtic metal singer Leah McHenry earn a pass on quality, but the keys and symphonics busy everything to the point of distraction. Not-so-subtle nods to Peterson’s Testament efforts make little sense given the intent of the Dragonlord project. “Ominous Premonition” enjoys ov deep head scratch as it shifts into an awkward rock section that Teuras would be proud of.
To their credit, everyone in Dragonlord takes their role seriously, and the performances are tight. Peterson’s fabulous screams alone could be a reason to stay if only the music were more interesting. But the heavy synth presence, production, and riffs all seem like they could go in a different direction entirely and be happy with it. Dominion never convinces you that it wants to be what it’s supposed to be. There are more noteworthy aspects to its key digressions, thrashy chugs, and rock influences than the ostensible focus of the record. Excepting the best moments, the very brief riffs worthy of Immortality, the black metal wears a face of Oreo creme and black Sharpie instead of the war paint of the trve. The pitch-perfect studio work exacerbates this, as the resulting sterility offers less connections than a Tinder profile with a corpse paint picture.
When finale “Serpents of Fire” goes full Testament for its final few minutes, it’s fitting in a way. Dragonlord returns to the sound that spawned it as a last hurrah, rather than attempting a last-ditch effort to offer one song, one single song, that could establish Dragonlord as a band in its own right. Instead, Dominion closes as a side effort, perhaps for the last time. The lack of cohesion; the stylistic schizophrenia; the disconnect between listener and album; all suggest a surprising lack of passion behind this passion project. That isn’t the case—it can’t be, given what it took to get Dominion completed—but this can’t have been what Dragonlord strived to create for the last decade. It just isn’t good enough.