“Malevolence.” That word resonated through my mind as I listened to the fourth full-length by French death/black outfit Svart Crown. A word so mundane and exploited in adjective-laden reviews that it appears frivolous when used to describe metal.1 Yet, when Abreaction is concerned, the seeping and creeping feeling suggested by the word seems almost palpable, venturing beyond just a cool appellation and into territories of real unease. The album as a whole is defined by it as each riff, drum hit, and growl is imbued with this foreboding sensation of distilled evil.
Clearly, Abreaction continues where 2013’s Profane left off, pushing Svart Crown’s sound towards a more progressive and atmospheric zenith, relenting from the constant attack, and instead opting to include a variety of metallic influences. The tempos are motley. Guitars swirl from twisting, Nile-like modal riffs and minor harmonies to grumbling roars of tremolos and solo squeals. Blast beats are pushed aside by spastic, tribal rhythms. Vocals morph through a melange of styles, touching upon clean lines before lurching into bestial growls. Not by accident, the introductory “Golden Sacrament” serves as a good example of such an approach. It leads the way with a crunchy, slowly rolling cadence sprinkled with whispered vocals and an atmosphere reminiscent of doom death groups, only to shift into a maniacal roll, foreboding and crushing. It makes for an interesting piece whose exact style won’t be repeated afterwards while its multifariousness becomes a trait inherited by most of the tracks on the record.
Instead, the band launches into a sort of black, death, et al. metal jukebox. They hit extremely hard and fast on “Carcosa,” one of the best songs on the record. They turn almost completely to doom metal on “The Pact: To the Devil His Due” with chanted, polyphonic-sounding vocal lines added for variety. Finally, they resort to their trademark insanely contorted rhythms and riffs played blazingly fast and aggressive on “Upon This Intimate Madness” and “Khimba Rites,” a track which threatens to fold into itself. Apart from two shorter (and superfluous) instrumental interludes, “Tentaction” — a Fantômas meets spaghetti western OST affair — and “Lwas,” the flow and general mood of the record remain uninterrupted. The climax of it all comes in the form of the last tune “Nganda,” a cut which exudes a monumental sound built on the basis of warped, out-of-control riffs and equally impressive leads and solos.
Unfortunately, the diversity that Svart Crown toy with carries a baggage of clear influences in their sound. Morbid Angel, Nile, Behemoth, Belphegor, and Incantation are sometimes cited a bit too directly for comfort and the formulaic nature of some of the songs is evident. While they never, of course, venture into straight mimicry, it’s hard to shake the “I’ve heard it before” feeling. This is especially true of “Orgasmic Spiritual Ecstasy,” “Transsubstantiation” — which fails to capture attention despite neat tempo changes and Eld-era Enslaved riffing — and “Emphatic Illusion,” a tired triptych found near the edge of the record. These cuts become taxing through repetition and their dryness is emphasized by the quality of what came before them. Yet, despite these shortcomings and plodding passages, the malevolence prevails in the dark overtones of the songs, their (personally universal) lyrics, and the gusto with which Svart Crown delivers them. While the band had it’s fair share of lineup changes in recent years (drummer Kévin Paradis and guitarist Kevin Verlay of Agressor replace Nico Muller and Clément Flandrois), this had no impact on the quality of the songwriting as Svart Crown still feels as mainly JB Le Bail’s child. Similarly consistent are the production and mastering that envelop this massively vicious sound, courtesy of Francis Caste.
In many ways, Abreaction is Svart Crown’s crowning achievement.2 It’s a sublimation of all the stylistic paths that Le Bail and co. have explored so far, and a further step towards the throne of the most reliable and enjoyable blackened death metal act out there. While it wears thin at times, Abreaction still ranks amongst the best death metal releases of the year so far. May we not wait another four years for a follow-up.