REVIEW: CRIPPLED BLACK PHOENIX – “Ellengæst”
England’s Crippled Black Phoenix have been around for a while now, and though rarely falling into the metal category, their intense, heavy sound has long pulled fans to their side of the dark rock fence. Headed by band mastermind, songwriter, and guitarist Justin Greaves the band is set to release their album ‘Ellengæst’ in early October. The title is an Old English word translated as “strong spirit” or in some contexts “mischievous demon” both of which sum the band, and their frequent struggles, and lineup changes quite well. The end result is an album with quite a lot to offer.
This outing would be no different for the band, as when it came time to record they found themselves without a male vocalist or keyboardist. Greaves quickly put the call out to friends and other musicians, and before long they had a host of well-known vocalists contributing to the album, including Vincent Cavanagh (Anathema), Gaahl (Gaahls Wyrd’s, ex Gorgoroth), and one time CBP touring bassist Ryan Patterson. The result is a surprisingly consistent album, and one that if you didn’t know the vocalists were guests, you would think they had been in the band for years.
“House of Fools” begins the album, and it also kicks off the heaviest moment on the album as sharp staccato riffs cut through the sound of a lone trumpet. The heaviness doesn’t last long but quiets down and Vincent’s voice is heard. He is soon joined by full-time band member Belinda Kordic (vocals/percussion), and their voices mix and raise together like cedarwood smoke. The track builds and becomes increasingly heavy and fierce as it goes, and the vocals for both become more desperate and blended. She adds just enough color to his deeper, and richer voices to create a truly memorable opening track.
In fact the combo works so well they join forces again for the next song “Lost.” This time, however, Belinda takes the lead vocals, and Vincent adds the backing texture. Belinda’s vocals are much more in your face for this track, which very much reminds me of the late ’80s to mid 90’s era Swans. Both the music is reminiscent of that work, and Belinda’s vocals remind me more than a little bit of Jarboe as well. The result is quite satisfying, though perhaps not very original.
Perhaps the biggest guest vocal surprise on the album is Gaahl, who typically does not collaborate, and is of course primarily known as a black metal vocalist. He sheds the past to perform “In The Night” which is a full duet with Belinda. The song begins with the recording of a younger woman talking about trying to get her mother’s attention and learning to hide how hurt she was. It goes along with the lyrics of the song but is frankly more distracting, and annoying than anything. “In The Night” is a fairly lengthy song, over 8 minutes, and for the first half, Gaahl’s vocals are limited to spoken word, and done very slowly. The result is, I find the first half to be rather lackluster, if not pretentious; which is a word that as a prog fan I really hate using. Eventually, the tempo picks up a bit, the music builds in intensity, and both vocalists begin to sing in a normal way. The repeated line of ‘live to fight another day’ says more by itself than all of the opening did, and the building and combined vocals are most of the best, and most intense on the entire album.
Though I hate going track by track, I find that I have to as the following song “Cry Of Love” is the lead single for the album, and one they made a music video for. It also has two new vocalists, the aforementioned Ryan Patterson, but also U.K. solo artist Suzie Stapleton. It is one of the most consistently intense songs throughout, and lyrics mark the clearly painful passing of someone very close. Hearing alone, one would assume that the loss was the death of a parent, or child, or spouse is given the extreme reactions to a loss in the lyrics. As it turns out the loss was a cat. Now I love cats, point of fact, we have 8 of them, but this revelation tends to make the whole song a bit much.
The last song I want to fully touch on is the longest of the album, the 11 and a half minute “The Invisible Past.” Featuring yet another guest vocalist Jonathan Hultén, this is a song that takes its time and uses it wisely. The beginning section is very quiet and simple, indeed Hultén’s vocals are more whispers than anything. But it evolves with a sprinkle of space rock (not dissimilar to CBP’s earliest albums) before going into the sweeping riffs, and repetitions of post-rock/metal that the band has been known for in the past. It would have made a great closing to the album.
The album instead ends with a cover of Bauhaus’s “She’s in Parties.” Sung entirely by Belinda it clashes fully with the music, and atmosphere of the rest of the album. It would have been better suited for a B-side of a single, or solo release on the band’s website. Miscues like this, along with the overdone intro to “In The Night,” and the inclusion of the minute and a half recording of a guy talking about depression that wholly consists of the throwaway track “(-)” are what I think drags this album down from where it could be, which is a pity, as the rest is very good.
Crippled Black Phoenix have crafted what is overall a very solid, frequently intense, and enjoyable album. And while ‘Ellengæst’ has its flaws, the good things certainly outweigh the bad, and will likely be an album that both their fans and people coming to them for the first time will find plenty to sink their teeth into.