Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape marks the anticipated return of Black Crown Initiate after four long years, and fans won’t be disappointed. A definitive statement of intent, it succeeds as a timeless work of epic death metal.
Back in 2016, Pennsylvania natives Black Crown Initiate scored a breakthrough. Their sophomore album Selves We Cannot Forgive enjoyed universal acclaim and was the darling of many heavy music publications – deservedly so. While it was a strong album front to back, I remember feeling that despite its ambition, it was rather conservative in its handling of creative boundaries and the dynamic possibilities enabled by its longer tracks lengths. Although I did enjoy the album for its tone, its technical proficiency, and the handling of its melodic moments, I believed this was just the beginning of Black Crown Initiate’s full realization of their sound.
Four long years later, after I’ve had the chance to hear their latest release, the awesomely titled Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape, I’m happy to confirm that it is the refinement of Selves We Cannot Forgive‘s beloved vision that I hoped for. With approximately the same number of tracks – albeit slightly more varying in length – and mixing and matching similar tones and styles, this effort seeps the whole mix with greater grandiosity, menace, urgency, and restrained brashness. Violent Portraits is the sound of a band reveling in their own prowess without feeling the need to show off.
The album marks Black Crown Initiate‘s first effort with guitarist Ethan McKenna, who incidentally was the first guitarist approached to perform with the band during their formative years. While there’s no obvious change in style to be heard because of the line-up change, it’s evident that the band’s creative process behind the scenes is in top shape. This record is a beastly example of modern metal.
I use the word ‘modern’ quite literally here, as the sound on display is timeless. While there are plenty of callbacks to eras past – to the multifaceted glory days of Opeth, the clean vocal harmonization of Alice in Chains, or the intertwinement of melody and stuttering palm-muted chugging championed by The Faceless and their Sumerian-core imitators – the comparisons are simply echoes that come to mind when listening to a cohesive body of work very much in possession of its own identity.
This is an album that can be understood and appreciated in a vacuum without context; accordingly, it will likely sound fresh for decades to come.
On each of these nine tracks, it’s evident that significant thought went into the arrangements and how best to immerse listeners without ever taking them out of the experience as the tracks transition from one idea to the next. The ideas here won’t be unfamiliar to fans of the band, although this time around there is far more attention given to playing with dynamics in more interesting ways. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear clean musical passages overlaid with harsh vocals, or grand melodic singing underpinned by ferocious double bass. Furthermore, the entire experience is permeated by a vaguely gothic tone reminiscent of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s recent work, much to the album’s benefit. It feels like a logical progression from earlier ideas toyed with by the band, and never overpowers their core sound.
Black Crown Initiate continue to utilize their dual vocal approach to great effect, with both clean vocalist Andy Thomas and harsh vocalist James Dorton more or less sharing vocal duties on every track. The clean vocals are excellent, at times calling to mind Stephen Richards of Taproot, of all bands. I suspect the parallels derive from both vocalists sharing similar vocal qualities, and an appreciation for the melodies of Alice in Chains. While I enjoyed the melodic vocals very much, it was the unclean vocal performances that stole the show for me this time around.
The so-called ‘death growl’ vocal style and its many variants are tricky to get right, often delivered blandly with underwhelming monotony – over-relying on power and intensity to successfully communicate the desired tone. Dorton utilizes these techniques with flair, leveraging a gothic theatricality to infuse the album’s intense moments with more personality than usual. Apart from utilizing a full range (including belly-rumbling growls, higher-pitched shrieks, and mid-range bellows), it’s the deliberateness of his technique that truly elevates his performance. Be it through his enunciation – much improved since the last album – or how he chooses to linger on certain syllables, or how he adds undercurrents of operatic melody on occasion, his performance is a constant reminder of the fun that can be had with this vocal style, and frankly puts many of his peers to shame.
I do find it curious that the band opted to release the bookends of the album as singles. As a general rule, I find ambitious releases such as this one to benefit from keeping their first and last impressions a surprise; this is especially true when, as is the case here, they amount to the album’s most ambitious tracks. While every song on this release is stellar, it feels as though Black Crown Initiate managed to represent themselves most fully on these two in particular. Both impeccably showcase the full range of their dynamics, be it the interplay of melody and dissonance, beautiful harmonization and savage heaviness, or catchiness and technicality. By revealing these tracks ahead of time, the shine of the full album experience was somewhat curbed for me, though this will have no bearing on new listeners who go in fresh.
Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape is the crystallization of Black Crown Initiate‘s signature style. It’s rare that a band seemingly peaks, only to return with renewed vigor and purpose. Perhaps the album is still a tad conservative – there aren’t any wild experiments to be found here – and after four years since their last effort, the growth on display is more subtle than it is explosive. That being said, it feels like the band’s definitive statement of intent, so much so that despite the album’s awesome name, it might have been more appropriate for it to be proudly self-titled.