A band’s sophomore album is the make or break moment in many a career. We all know the story: A young band cobbles together a set of original compositions then spends years honing and retooling them in live settings, finding what works and what doesn’t. Those carefully polished, time-tested chestnuts become the grist of their debut and if they’re good, all that sweat equity pays big dividends. After that they’re forced to write a whole new set of tunes much faster to meet a label’s release cycle so as to keep the unwashed masses fed and engaged. Can the rushed material equal what came before? Two-man doom act, Northern Crown sidestep this question almost entirely by revamping their sound for their eponymous second album. Gone is the quirky union of Candlemass and Kamelot heard on their impressive debut, The Others. In its place is a sound steeped in the 70s rock of Deep Purple and Rainbow. Imagine “Stargazer” with a stronger doom element and you’re right about there. Does this end-around the sophomore jinx work for them? Is it cheating?
While Northern Crown is definitely a beast of a different color, much of the compositional acumen that made The Others work is present here as well. Opener “I Am Your Slave” is a brooding, simmering beast that sounds like Deep Purple covering a song written for Sabbath‘s Heaven and Hell, but with more prog influences The overpowering organs scream 70s rock as Frank Serafine blows the doors off with a huge vocal performance sounding like Roy Khan (ex-Kamelot) if Jorn was his vocal coach. It’s a big sounding song with a lot of musical ideas crammed into its seven and a half minutes, and it will impress you. “Merciless, They Let You Suffer” is much more urgent, upbeat and catchy, like Rainbow channeling Cirith Ungol, which is weird as hell but it works in a hilariously trve way.
Longer epic cut “The Desert and the Wind” benefits from a eerie, melancholic vibe similar to Crimson Glory‘s timeless “Lost Reflection” and Serafine’s vocals once again elevate the song to that next level. Unexpected death metal vocals arrive at a key moment and the guitar-work at times approximates Sólstafir‘s bleak post-metal. It feels like the band stumbled on a really potent new/old style and is making the most of it. The presence of righteous guitar-work and slick prog sensibilities add an intriguing layer and it all gels for a big win. Nearly 10-minute closer cover “Your River” pulls out all the stops, remaining faithful to the weepy My Dying Bride original, building into a rousing, dynamic doom piece full of cascading moods and emotions, some quite like Type O Negative. Even black metal rasps make a ghoulish appearance for added effect. Impressive that it fits with the rest of the album as well as it does.
At 58 minutes, Northern Crown feels a bit on the long side, and the longer cuts could stand a wee bit of trimming, but no song is weak or unnecessary. Length aside, all the songs have a lot of interesting things going on as well as a good deal of replay value, and the album flows quite well. The bulk of the material is mid-paced, and a few more moments of upbeat rock like “Merciless, They Let You Suffer” would be a plus, but there’s not much else to complain about here. The production makes this feel like a lost 70s gem dredged up from some hidden recess, and the mix is good, especially the drum sound. The keyboards can get too prominent here and there, but it’s a minor issue.
The two gentlemen behind Northern Crown are quite talented. Founder Zachary Randall handles guitar, keyboards and backing vocals, and he’s joined at times by Evan Hensley (Nightfall) on lead guitar. Their fret-work is often based in 70s rock, but those doom riffs are still there and can get quite heavy. The soloing is often jammy, free and open-ended, making songs like “Chasing the Sun” feel epic and expansive. The keyboards are very much in the Jon Lord mode and occasionally rise to the over-the-top heights of Iron Butterfly. Frank Serafine has a big, powerful voice and he uses every bit of it on these winding anthems. His gritty yet polished performance is a boon to the songs and helps keep the sometimes overlong compositions quite engaging. His drumming isn’t shabby either.
At first I was unsure what to make of this new sound as there’s a lot going on, but after some time it’s clear Northern Crown are still crafting rock solid doom, now infused with rich, creamy 70s rock and prog. This thing grows on me with every spin and it’s certainly a well of cool musical ideas. Sophomore jinx averted by time travel and deception. Kudos, gents! Check this thing out.