Phantom are plagued by the morbid. The macabre and grotesque are fused together in Death Epic, the spectral second record by this Danish four-piece. Death Epic — similar to Carach Angren, though less melodramatic — tells isolated stories of vengeful and malignant spirits tormenting the living, a “little book of horrors in audial form.” Tales of car crashes, child murder, ghostly home invasions, and battlefield slaughter merge with ghastly reflections on life and the afterlife. All of this is framed within a peculiar black metal vehicle. You’ll find all your typical black metal elements here but they are diluted by heavy doses of doom, gothic and ambient music. Keyboards, pianos, organs, and samples from who-knows-where play a key role in creating the grandiose, mournful feeling at the withering heart of Death Epic.
Death Epic is an album of twists and turns. Whereas the first half has a more conventionally black metal core, the second half — particularly the final two tracks — spirals into much more unexpected territories. Opening track “The Horror” drives forward with manic mid-90s Rotting Christ melodies and Dimmu Borgir symphonic outlandishness to decent effect. There’s a clear, full sound here that brings out the instrumentation well but doesn’t sacrifice grittiness. Short and sweet solos, the brief taste of clean vocals, orchestral warmth, and kooky piano continue through songs like “Night Sweet Night” and “Deities of War” but the core black metal sound of the verses fails to give much power to the flashier elements of these songs.
Phantom are a lot more interesting when dwelling in macabre peculiarity. Take “Until Death,” for example, which stops midway through to allow the reverberating sound of heavy breathing and crunching footfall to envelop with menace. From this moment the song takes a turn for the better by beginning to integrate spacious elements of doom and gothic, turning the eerie melancholy nozzle to eleven. It’s at this point that I yearn for Phantom to slow down — they’re a much better death-doom band. Vocalist SS has deep, crispy, guttural snarls that merge well with the sparser threads of gothic sound. His clean vocals, especially in “Until Death,” are much more poignant when given more space to breathe. You’d be doing Phantom a disservice by not reading through the lyric book at least once. The brief stories at the heart of each song provide a solid backdrop to the music. SS’s vocals are clear enough to be understood, but submersing yourself in the dreary tales of Death Epic is a rewarding journey.
The standout tracks arrive towards the second half of the record. “Drive” is a genuinely unsettling song that combines the barely audible samples of a person muttering with the slow, meaty plod of the prominent bass. Creepy whispers and well placed lulls and silences in the track further enhance the grim atmosphere of a track centered around a fatal car accident. “Forever Young” is similarly morbid though more theatrical in tone. The spirit of British gloomsters Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride are traceable here — “Forever Young” borrows from the melodic melancholy of these bands whilst keeping a grip of the black metal elements of Death Epic‘s opening. Closing tracks “Death Epic” and “Hurt Them” eliminate almost all traces of black metal to wonderful effect. They’re crushingly beautiful doom dirges — pianos, slow and sensual solos, luscious strings and a general use of melody that strikes at Melancholy’s core makes these a wonderful success. “I wish that you would live'” is the closing lyric to the dream-like shimmer of “Hurt Them,” a surprisingly emotional ending.
Going back to the start of the album is jarring. Nothing really comes close to reaching the excellence of “Drive” and “Forever Young” and the greatness of “Death Epic” and “Hurt Them.” The transition from the harsh, violent horror theme of the opening to the tender, reflective gloom of the closing doesn’t work for me. Every time I listen to Death Epic I find myself wishing for something different, for the entire thing to be more melodic, doomy and depressing. This is a shame — the opening songs are not at all bad but they’re not special. “Death Epic” is special but like a ghost, its power is fleeting and isolated, unable to root itself and influence the rest of the album. Maybe next time.