I’ve had more than a handful of people remark that I’ve been too critical of the Robert Lowe era of Candlemass responsible for King of the Grey Islands (2007) and Death Magic Doom (2009). In truth, I dig both albums, but lofty expectations come with the territory when you’re responsible for putting epic doom metal on the map and count both Epicus Doomicus Metallicus and Nightfall amongst your discography. The band’s 25+ years of endurance has amassed a stack of scorchers stretching from the venerable “Under the Oak” all the way up to “Clearsight” that involuntarily set the bar to heroic heights. And when a long-time fan such as myself sits back and puts a critical ear to the current era of Candlemass, while I’d agree that both previous Lowe-fronted albums showed moments of impressive leaping ability, neither record managed to corral the impressive strength exhibited by their triumphant return to the game in 2005 with the Messiah-fronted self-titled ‘white album.’
Well, as the Good Book says, “very truly I say to you, before the rooster crows, the third time shall be the charm.” Or something like that. You get the drift.
First and foremost, Psalms for the Dead exhibits the catchiest overall songwriting Leif’s done since 1989’s Tales of Creation, and that comes from a guy who really enjoyed the sorely under-appreciated From the 13th Sun, the self-titled record, and last year’s He Who Sleeps Amongst the Stars from Leif’s other mainstay, Krux. It’s still a very ‘modern’ sounding Candlemass record, so it’s bright and occasionally downright galloping, as opposed to the more brooding/agonizing mid-to-late Eighties period of the band. Put plainly, I’d say the overall mood strikes a perfect balance between the slightly darker stance of King of the Grey Islands and the bouncier Death Magic Doom — the quintessential harmony for a Lowe-fronted Candlemass.
And speaking of the man, it will come as little surprise to many that Robert delivers huge here once again; it’s perhaps the best he’s sounded to date. There’s less of a repetitive feel to the overall choruses, which definitely helps, and most everything is crafted in a manner that reveals just enough of the stark, in-your-face emotion Lowe’s capable of shotgunning into your ears without ever fully losing sight of a more subtle approach where his voice floats smoothly alongside subtle keyboard atmospherics and Lasse Johansson’s fluid lead play.
Which brings us to the next two Psalms selling points. First: it sounds as if Lasse and crew listened to a lot of King Diamond to prep for this record. Every tune features at least one blazingly melodic lead that sounds as if some sort of portal leading directly to Andy LaRocque’s fiery fret-pool was discovered. Listen to the 3:21 point of the fantastic opener “Prophet” and tell me you can’t envision Abigail dancing around the top of a staircase. Candlemass albums in the past have obviously showcased their share of leads, but I don’t recall a time when they helped carry a collection of tunes as effectively as they do for Psalms for the Dead.
Second: Organ, organ, ORGAN!! I don’t care what your relationship with the Hammond organ has been in the past, Psalms for the Dead uses it perfectly to paint nearly every corner of the record. And when it’s not the Hammond effect giving the overall mood a welcomed touch of Deep Purple strut (particularly for the smoking “Siren Song”), the switch gets flipped to tone it down to simple ‘atmospheric keys’ to help emphasize the album’s more epic moments. There was a time long ago when I used to consider myself somewhat of a ‘Witchfinder General’ in charge of condemning all keyboard heresy, but I will comfortably state that their inclusion on this record is a key factor for Psalms for the Dead‘s comprehensive potency.
In terms of breaking down individual tunes, suffice to say that you’d have to dig pretty deep to find something truly worthy of complaint. If you were hip to the early release of “Dancing in the Temple (of the Mad Queen Bee),” rest assured that 95% of the rest of the material is not as lighthearted in overall theme or as briskly paced. (Apart from opening scorcher, “Prophet.”) The remaining fare brings the pace down several notches with a wide array of moods to better spice the pot. The album’s darker selections — “The Sound of Dying Demons,” “Waterwitch” and the fantastic self-titled track — all sport extremely headbangable doom riffs, but I’d say “Psalms for the Dead” stands as an earlier contender for a favorite simply because it eventually tromps out the heaviest midsection to come out of the Candlemass camp since “Under the Oak.”
“The Lights of Thebe” is similarly dark, particularly with its cryptic keyboard intro, but its blanketing Middle Eastern flavor makes it a prime mark for something that could just as easily have landed from Lowe’s auxiliary stronghold, Solitude Aeturnus. And the album is rounded out with a back-to-back dose of undeniable doom groove with the immensely infectious “The Killing of the Sun” and “Siren Song,” both of which seem tailor-made for stomping about with a good ol’ fashion Messiah-mosh.
If I were to pinpoint one criticism, it would be the way the band chooses to end the album. The first minute-and-a-half of “Black as Time” features a spoken condemnation against a ticking clock that sounds as if at any moment things could break into a full-on Monty Python circus of meticulously choreographed peasants prancing alongside a bearded Eric Idle version of Father Time. That… actually sounds pretty fantastic, but what would’ve been really nice is if they’d chosen to drop the curtain on the final Candlemass album with one last gut-wrencher; a definitive 2012 version of “Samarithan” to properly put the final exclamation point at the end of an amazing career.
And yes, for those who somehow managed to miss the bulletin, Psalms for the Dead has been earmarked as the final studio album for Candlemass. They still plan on remaining (somewhat) active as a touring band, but Leif maintains the stance that it’s best to finally bring the chapter to a close to avoid the inevitability of ‘the downward spiral.’ It’s a shame, really, as Psalms for the Dead truly does sound as if they’ve unearthed the perfect formula for their current roster. Still, I respect any band’s decision to close up shop before the shoddy work starts to rumble down the conveyor. Regardless of how much time you want to waste wondering if Leif & crew will stick to the ultimatum, I’d certainly say Psalms for the Dead represents an extremely worthy bookend for an incredibly impressive pilgrimage.
Thank you, Candlemass, from the bottom of my heart, for all the years and countless hours spent enjoying your wonderfully epic doom. Things simply won’t be the same without the prospect of new material.
The King is dead. Long live the King.