Elliott’s Keep’s debut, In Medias Res, was for me one of those pleasant surprises that makes this reviewing gig worthwhile. As a conservative estimate, I would say that 80% of the albums I review never get listened to again after I submit my review. That’s not to say that all those albums are crap, though certainly some are. More often it’s just a case of my not making a real connection with the music. But something about Elliott’s Keep’s blend of traditional doom and death metal struck a chord with me, and so I took a little more pleasure than usual in critiquing the band’s work and hopefully exposing them to some potential fans. Happily, as fate would have it, I have the opportunity to review the band’s second effort, Sine Qua Non.
In some cases, you can judge a book (or a CD) by its cover; Sine Qua Non’s medieval-themed artwork and Latin title point to a strong kinship with its predecessor, and the music within follows suit. For the most part, this is a good thing, but unfortunately, the band’s one major flaw remains: vocalist/bassist Ken’s clean vocal delivery is still rather anemic. Ken’s voice is not unpleasant, and he manages for the most part to stay in key, but Elliott’s Keep’s compositions require Ken to shoulder a heavy melodic load, and his voice simply lacks the power to carry that load to the top of the mountain. The vocal deficiency is felt most acutely on “Damned”, which features clean vocals almost entirely. With the underlying music being more subdued than is typical for the band, it falls to Ken to deliver some sort of emotional payoff, but sadly, the song drifts by rather uneventfully.
On the other hand, Ken’s harsh vocals have only grown more dynamic and vicious. With deep growls and mid-ranged snarls, Ken is able to handle the aggressive side of the band’s music with far more confidence and effectiveness than he does the delicate side. Prime evidence of this is “Witchburning”, wherein the band delivers the most punishing performance of the album. Ken matches the track’s instrumental ferocity with a demonic fury of his own, barking out the chorus of “Burn her” with sadistic glee.
From an instrumental standpoint, Elliott’s Keep’s performance is just as solid as it was on the debut. One of the band’s strengths is its ability to sound heavy without becoming mired in down-tempo repetition. Much like classic Black Sabbath epics like “Wheels of Confusion” and “Under the Sun”, Elliott’s Keep’s lengthy compositions feature frequent changes of theme and tempo to keep the listener engaged. The band’s riffing style still bears strong resemblance to Solitude Aeturnus and Candlemass, but Sine Qua Non finds Elliott’s Keep pursuing a more aggressive and rhythmically intricate style that bears more of the band’s own stamp.
In Medias Res was a compact, six-track, thirty-six-minute album that was easy to digest. In comparison, Sine Qua Non features eight tracks adding up to nearly an hour of playing time. With this much material it’s almost inevitable that some is going to miss the mark. Sine Qua Non’s first half is quite strong: “Fearless”, “Fate” and “Shades of Disgrace” (which features a guest solo from Solitude Aeturnus’s John Perez) all strike a perfect balance of melody and aggression. However, after the climactic “Witchburning”, the quality falls off a bit with a few tracks, “Beloved” and the aforementioned “Damned”, that never quite reach a full boil.
In the end, Sine Qua Non is not quite the step into the big leagues that I had hoped for from Elliott’s Keep, but it is still a solid album that displays some growth and refinement of the band’s sound. At this point, I would still consider Elliott’s Keep a second-tier doom band, but with a little more vocal firepower, these guys could be titans.