It’s funny how directly imitating a unique, legendary band can lead to wide variety of reactions among both critics and fans. There aren’t a lot of Meshuggah clones out there that have gotten more than a laugh or two from the masses, and you’ll struggle to find an Opeth replica that doesn’t seem silly when compared to Mikael Akerfeldt’s greatest works (although Gwynbleidd does pretty well). The easiest explanation for this might be that both of those examples are purely legendary bands that have helped to shape the direction of metal during their careers.
But you can say the exact same thing about Bathory, and yet Quorthon fans the world over still eat up the material released by some of his most direct disciples. While there are likely multiple reasons for this – chief among them Quorthon’s death and fans’ desire to fill the gap – one reason stands out plainly in the music of these followers: emotion. From Falkenbach and early Moonsorrow to the Bathory-esque passages from Atlantean Kodex, those epic moments just feel so sincere, something we so rarely get from bands with a clear cloning intent in mind.
That from-the-heart honesty permeates every second of Riddle of Steel, debut full length from Swedish duo Sons of Crom, straight down to the vocals. With Bathory, Quorthon’s untrained voice actually became a highlight on albums like Hammerheart, due to the sheer emotion fueling it. By contrast, the lead vocals on Riddle of Steel seem trained, but are delivered in an unrefined way out of homage to the source.
That sort of nod to the Viking-era is all over the album, from the rhythms and riffs to the general sense of bombast (chorus in “Master of Shadows”) and huge, layered choral vocals. However, like the above bands, the Sons add in just enough of their own flourishes to make the music feel fresh. One such effect is a fuzzy, compressed, almost pinched guitar tone, which helps solos, rhythm parts, and basic melodies to cut through to the forefront. The band also carries an undercurrent of 90s black metal. While this only occasionally comes through as anything harsh – most notably during “Call of the Black Mountain” – shades of neoclassicism give subtle calls to the more symphonic and melodic of the era.
Beyond any of these details, however, is the staggering level of maturity on display throughout Riddle of Steel. From the album’s holistic construction to Sons of Crom’s stellar dynamic sensibilities, this feels like the work of a veteran band, not one delivering its debut. Most telling is the role of less than standard “metal” tracks. The soft “Golden Gate,” with its gorgeous choral passages, the playfully storytelling instrumental “Cimmerian Dance,” and even the sparse piano outro feel no less like important parts of the whole than the 12-minute “Victory.” And speaking of that epic, through a slight application of doom, smart shifts in melodic mood, and some huge vocal dynamics, Sons of Crom achieve a sprawling, constant feeling of gravity. It’s less an edge-of-your-seat kind of suspense than a slow burn of intensity, something at which Quorthon was quite adept.
If a flaw exists – beyond the arguable flaw of being unoriginal-by-nature – it is that the album’s arc probably isn’t quite as grandiose at it intends to be. These songs sound undeniably great together, but the lasting feeling is less of chills and emotional release than “damn, that was nice.” Nice, and quite promising. A group that already has this much of a knack for melody, varied songcraft, and deeply textured production likely has more up their gauntleted sleeves. But regardless of whatever the future holds, Riddle of Steel is now, and Sons of Crom display more than enough talent and heartfelt fervor to draw in many a fan of epic metal.