Solitude Aeturnus / Candlemass - _Alone_ / _King of the Grey Islands_
(Massacre / Nuclear Blast, 2007)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (10 out of 10 / 9 out of 10)
For those who haven't followed the soap opera in the two years since the Messiah Marcolin-led comeback effort _Candlemass_, the long and short of it is that almost exactly a year ago Messiah posted notice on the Internet that he could not work with the remaining members any longer and that he was gone for good this time. The remaining members publicly retorted something along the lines of, "nah, he's just throwing a tantrum; rest assured, Messiah -will- sing on this record". Then, a few months later, a follow up band posting revealed, "well, fuck, I guess maybe he isn't". All in a day's work in Leif Edling's camp, this being far from the first time he's dealt with revolving door band mates, including this very same singer. Yet Candlemass have generally always managed to bounce back with a fair to excellent degree of success, and even those fans who don't find themselves reaching for anything post-1992 all that often have to admire Edling's ability to adjust the group's sound to cater to the strengths of new members.

From the traditional metal singers (Johan Langquist, Thomas Vikstrom) to the more modern, rough-and-tumble variety (Bjorn Flodkvist), the non-Messiah throats have held their own in the midst of quarterbacking the team to victory; but none have had much success in the genre outside of this band. Hell, even Messiah hasn't partaken in any non-Candlemass activity of note in a full decade, the last Memento Mori album having been released in 1997. Bottom line: the fact that Candlemass tarries on in triumph regardless of who's in the driver's seat, while the ex-singers move on and attempt to deal with heavy metal's version of The Seinfeld Curse, would seem to point to Leif Edling's input as the barometer of artistic integrity in the band.

But wait! Something interesting is afloat. Instead of drafting another untested talent, Edling and company convinced -- in surprisingly due haste -- none other than legendary Solitude Aeturnus frontman Robert Lowe (not to be confused with he of the Brat Pack / '80s sex tape fame) to give the vocal chores a whirl. On paper this is about as great of a dream team match up as fans could care to conjure up, Lowe being arguably one of the top five all time singers in the doom genre, but anyone who's been around this game long knows that too often these "super group" pairings turn out too good to be true. But Lowe made clear from the start that he would be balancing his workload between Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus, so all in all we have ourselves a low risk proposition.

The folks at Massacre Records couldn't have been too thrilled with the timing, though, with all the hubbub climaxing right around the time the first Solitude Aeturnus album in eight years was being released worldwide; and in terms of public clamoring, _Alone_ more or less died on the vine (note that even a resource as dependable as CoC never got around to reviewing it -- until now -- although in all due fairness yours truly did solicit Massacre for a copy late last year and never heard anything back. Tsk tsk.) Which is a fucking shame, really, because quite frankly _Alone_ is only equaled by _Beyond the Crimson Horizon_ in the mighty Solitude Aeturnus canon, the last couple of efforts being a case of diminishing returns, a once proud ensemble getting dangerously close to merely phoning it in. Apparently the time off has done them good, with no rust to show a la the latest Trouble record.

Unlike Candlemass, Solitude Aeturnus have always been a little reluctant to branch out musically, preferring to play to their strengths and keep it old-school. In spite of the near-decade since their last studio album, _Alone_ maintains the streak, stubbornly refusing to budge from the Solitude Aeturnus template but imbuing that sonic archetype with all the dignity and spirit a band of this integrity are capable of mustering. There are no shortage of epics on board, with four of the nine tracks clocking in at eight minutes or better (make that an even half if you pick up the digipak, which sports a ten-minute bonus track every bit as good as the rest of the album). In fact, the album as a whole makes a great case for the '80s metal sound remaining a still-relevant choice, rather than a mere nostalgia trip. Throughout _Alone_, from the ten-minute opener "Scent of Death" to the more brisk closer "Essence of Black", Solitude Aeturnus have filled the album's entirety with enough melody and tasty guitar licks to avoid a same-old-same-old feel -- a must for hour-long doom epics which feature few actual tempo changes. Frequent noodly guitar solos and drum rolls ("Waiting for the Light") also help spice things up.

"Upon Within" even sports a melancholy yet melodic chorus that flirts with power metal, and, indeed, "Sightless" bears as much resemblance to old Fates Warning as anything self-referencing. Truth be told, Robert Lowe has a raspy yet lived-in voice that would be equally well suited for a variety of other metal sub-genres, power metal included (I can see him filling in for the likes of, say, Iced Earth), which is possibly one of the reasons he was recruited by Candlemass... and kudos to Leif Edling for respecting the legacy of a band like Solitude Aeturnus enough to work with Lowe in balancing both acts. On the cusp of _Alone_'s breakthrough artistry, it would have been a crime to snuff that talent purely for economic considerations, especially for an entity (Candlemass) whose very existence perches precariously on the hot / cold motivations of Mr. Edling himself.

So how does his contribution to _King of the Grey Islands_ hold up? Superbly, it turns out, although not quite on the awe-inspiring lunatic genius level of _Alone_. This is more a result of slightly lesser songwriting, however, as Lowe's singing in and of itself is arguably even more inspired and fleshed out than on his own band's record. _King of the Grey Islands_ does benefit from a more expansive production, which becomes immediately evident in the interplay between guitars, vocals and keyboards. Even the drums have a more spacious rattle and thump to them, whereas the double bass rolls on _Alone_ were mildly canned / muffled by comparison. _Grey Islands_ is stockpiled with the usual Candlemass hodgepodge of epics, uptempo four to five minute bangers and brief, acoustic-laced numbers acting as intros and interludes between tracks.

As expected, the most instantly memorable are the shorter, catchier songs ("Demonia 6", "Devil Seed"), while the ones that grow on you and have more legs over the long run are the funereal epics. Of the latter, "Destroyer" is the meaner, teeth gritting rager, while "Of Stars and Smoke" and "Embracing the Styx" are the more forlorn and melodic of the bunch. Either way, _King of the Grey Islands_ is decidedly less depressive and more tragically upbeat (if that makes sense) than the Aeturnus platter, yet _Alone_ gets the overall nod for sheer non-pareil songwriting alone. Now, here's hoping the collaboration lasts long enough to get the two bands on one of those co-headlining tours, a la the King Diamond / Mercyful Fate jaunts.

(article published 7/10/2007)

12/24/2009 C Burton 9.5 Candlemass - Death Magic Doom
4/19/2005 J Smit 8.5 Candlemass - Candlemass
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