Northern Crown – In a Pallid Shadow Review and Album Premiere

I first stumbled upon Northern Crown back in 2016 when their sophomore platter The Others hit the promo sump as an unheralded self-release. Their odd mix of doom and epic power metal caught my attention, and who could forget those Ms. Pac Man keyboard effects? After we’d had the promo for their upcoming fourth album for a time, Northern Crown founder Zach Randall reached out and asked if we wanted to premiere it. Since this is a band that always pushes creative boundaries and I was enamored with the new material, I jumped at the chance. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that we present the review and album premiere for In a Pallid Shadow. Support quality self-released metal, and why the Hell are these guys still not signed?

Northern Crown is on an unusual musical odyssey to destinations unknown. The brainchild of guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Zach Randall, the band started life playing traditional doom with a few outside influences floating at the edges. By their eponymous third outing they’d mutated into a prog metal act, gleefully exploring the sounds of the 70s and paying homage to Deep Purple, Rainbow and Black Sabbath. Now comes fourth album In a Pallid Shadow and with it they move even further from their doom roots as they plunge deeper down the progressive rabbit hole. While the band refer to their sound as “doom n’ roll,” the actual doom levels are limited now with the 70s prog elements dialed up. That’s not all that’s going on though. This time the band really flexes the artistic muscles, exploring a variety of styles, even wandering into 80s synth rock and the black metal borderlands. Imagine Opeth’s past few releases with a bigger metal edge and you’re about halfway there. I’ll drag you the rest of the way because I care.

Opener “Leprosarium” only partially hints at what’s to come, merging Deep Purple influences with the proto-metal lunacy of cult act Manilla Road. Hammond organs are abused, and as frontman Frank Serafine wails and croons for all he’s worth, the music shifts between the unorthodox song structures and major league bombast of the classic era of Meat Loaf, and a kind of subtle, quasi-jazz. Somehow these disparate elements stick together precariously and the song works well, though I have no idea how or why. “The Last Snowfall” switches gears, opting for a doomy mid-tempo plod adorned with powerful, Rob Lowe-esque vocals and spacey keyboards that would fit on a low budget 70s sci-fi flick. Should this work? No. Does it work? Yes. A powerful vocal performance and the mostly linear construction definitely help, and the song keeps you intrigued throughout.

Epic, moody power ballad “A Vivid Monochrome” is a bit too maudlin at moments, but it’s still interesting and engrossing, providing a mellow respite before the album asks you to scale the summit of the back-to-back nine minute epics that close it out. “8 Hours” traffics in a meaty mid-tempo powered by heavy riffs and epic sensibilities borrowed from doom, though the song never quite allows itself to become doom. To me it sounds like what Solitude Aeturnus would have come up with if forced to write their answer to “Stargazer.” It’s gritty, grinding and ominous, but strangely devoid of the big payoff it feels like it’s bulldozing toward. Still, the trip itself is well worth making. Closer “Observing” is when things really get weird. For all of its 9:27 runtime Northern Crown let their collective Id, Ego, Super Ego run free in a mammoth composition sitting at the crossroads of prog, hard rock, and metal like that giant squid monster that got dropped on New York City in Watchmen. It opens with spacey synths before locking into a metallic groove reminiscent of both Rainbow and Sabbath. Just as you start to think it sounds similar to the material on their last album, things wander into black metal realms with icy riffing and haunted croaking, only to shift abruptly to a sedate segment that sounds like vintage Kansas as interpreted by modern Opeth. Then the black metal comes back, a mysterious stranger arrives from Estonia, and eventually you realize you’re a giant cockroach. It’s a helluva song, and the album’s crowning achievement.

At 38:41 this feels like it’s the ideal length. Anything more would likely have been overkill. Since the songs mostly sit in the 7-9 minute range, there are naturally moments that run too long, especially the wind down of “Leprosarium.” That said, there’s usually enough going on in these compositions to justify their length, and the moods the band attempt to create take time to grow and root. Frank Serafine is a very good vocalist and he’s tasked with providing the hand holds for the listener as the songs move and twist. His powerful voice recalls everyone from Dio, Jorn and Rob Lowe and he’s able to elevate every song with his tasteful vocal placement and gritty delivery. This is still a very guitar-driven album though, and Zach Randall, Leona Hayward, and Frank Seafine all lend their talents. The riffs are mostly situated someplace between mellow doom and 70s rock, and there’s all sorts of interesting harmonies, melodies and solos flowing as the album waxes, wanes and wanks. Add in some wild keyboards and you have something ginormous enough to crush your puny mind.

This is a strange album. It’s ambitious, bloated, and bombastic, but it’s also rewarding and full of intricacies waiting to be discovered. It’s not exactly what I expected, nor is it likely to be love at first spin for many. It will take several immersions to fully connect with the material, but if you wish Opeth remembered they were a metal band when they started exploring 70s prog rock, this is for you. Not doom, not retro rock, In a Pallid Shadow is the mystery meat currently being served at the AMG cafeteria. Don’t ask questions, just dig in.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 11 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Self-Release
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: July 3rd, 2020

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