There was doom before Candlemass. There was Black Sabbath, of course, but one could argue that Sabbath transcends all sub-genres. The NWOBHM brought the likes of Witchfinder General and Pagan Altar, and a few years later the U.S. gave us Saint Vitus and Trouble, both legendary acts in their own right. But for all intents and purposes, Candlemass put doom metal on the map. Admittedly, it was a much smaller map back then. Candlemass began its career when thrash metal was at its peak and death metal was waiting in the wings. Lumbering doom, with its soaring and melodic vocals, was anything but in vogue at the time, and to say that Candlemass enjoyed enormous success would be stretching the truth. Nonetheless, through a string of undeniably classic records, Candlemass built an unrivaled legacy of doom that would eventually see the band revered as a ground-breaking, genre-defining iconic metal act.
If they ever build the Mount Rushmore of doom metal, Leif Edling should be the stony visage right next to Tony Iommi. Edling is essentially the Steve Harris of Candlemass: the band’s bassist, leader and principal songwriter. Edling is responsible for some of the greatest riffs and greatest songs not just in doom, but in all of metal.
Equally as integral to the Candlemass formula is the group’s tradition of powerful, melodic vocals. Over the course of its career, Candlemass has had in its ranks three of the best – perhaps even the three best – vocalists in doom. Johan Languist turned in a spectacular performance on the group’s debut, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, and then, for all practical purposes, disappeared from metal. The massive and massive-voiced Messiah Marcolin manned the mic in the group’s legend-building run from Nightfall through Tales of Creation, then returned for the classic lineup’s reunion in 2001 and the subsequent self-titled 2005 album. Following Marcolin’s second departure, the group enlisted Robert Lowe of fellow doom legends Solitude Aeternus. Lowe recorded three solid albums with the band before his ousting in 2012.
Candlemass’s last album, 2012’s Psalms for the Dead, was supposed to be its last, but the band has continued to perform live with the ample talents of former Yngwie Malmsteen (and umpteen other bands) vocalist Matts Levin, and they have a new EP due to be released in July. In the meantime, let us celebrate this legendary doom act with thirteen of the best doom metal songs ever made.
SOLITUDE[Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, 1986]
With Johan Languist’s somber vocals accompanied by a delicate acoustic guitar figure, “Solitude” starts off almost pretty, but soon a massive, ugly leviathan of a riff rears its head, echoing the torment of the song’s suicidal protagonist. The tone of both the music and the lyrics turns from merely sad to bitter and hateful, revealing this suicide as not a cry for help, but a violent act of revenge. It’s a dramatic way to start both a record and a career, but Candlemass has never really been about subtlety; the band was epic doom metal from the very start.
THE DYING ILLUSION[Chapter VI, 1992]
Most people familiar with the 90s era of Candlemass consider the material produced during that time period to be, to put it bluntly, fairly flawed, especially when stacked next to the previous decade’s output. Chapter VI, Dactylis Glomerata and From the 13th Sun are three decidedly different albums fronted by two very different singers, but more than a few diehards have deemed the first of the three to be Candlemass’s most underrated record, thanks in a large part to its kinship with the Martin-era of Sabbath. Chapter VI marked a significant shift for the band, not only due to the sudden absence of Marcolin, but because the landscape as a whole was frequently more lively and certainly more reliant on keyboard atmospherics. The formula worked, though, and Thomas Vikström quickly proved himself more than just an adequate robe-filler behind that soaring mic stand. The album is loaded with undervalued gems, but it’s the opening “The Dying Illusion” that gets the nod here, simply because it delivers all the record’s newfound elements in the most impressive manner. The song is energetic and infectious, Vikström nails the words with a towering spirit, and that filthy riff breakout around 3:00 still does the job of kicking in your teeth, even 20+ years later.
MIRROR MIRROR[Ancient Dreams, 1988]
No delicate acoustics or scene-setting intros: Ancient Dreams gets right down to the business of doom from its first note with “Mirror Mirror.” One thing that Candlemass has always excelled at is using riffs both to support the vocalist and as a driving, narrative force of their own. That’s why some of the band’s most indelible moments happen either with the guitars and vocals doubling each other or trading off emphasis. On “Mirror Mirror,” one of Candlemass’s finest, punchiest, almost neck-snapping riffs is the perfect set-up for a Messiah chorus that might come off as too sing-song if it weren’t for the crunch that it sits atop. And (spoiler alert) anytime the music shorts out entirely for a proclamation (procla-Marcolimation?), these Swedes mean business: “The mirror of darkness is… bliiiiiiiiiiind.”
DEAD ANGEL[Death Magic Doom, 2009]
As much as it pains me to admit, the Lowe-fronted Candlemass records failed to achieve the same level of prominence as the material Robert produced through his other mainstay, Solitude Aeturnus. It’s taken me a few years to come to terms with that, but there it is. Honestly, I don’t really fault either side of the fence for the mismatch, it’s simply something that worked better on paper than it did in reality.
That said, it’s not like the marriage produced duds, particularly in the case of 2007’s durable King of the Grey Islands. But as good as songs such as “Of Stars and Smoke” and “Clearsight” are, a nod must also be given to one of the finest Candlelowe tunes that hit with 2009’s otherwise uneven Death Magic Doom. “Dead Angel” is a perfect illustration of Candlemass’ more vigorous face, and it also delivers a chorus contagious enough to be the last thing that pops into your head when you’re finally shoveled into your perty pinebox at life’s end. A lofty Lowe point, for certain.
DARK REFLECTIONS[Tales of Creation, 1989]
Despite starting with a pretty classic metal gallop, “Dark Reflections” never once loses that doom metal feel that Candlemass had built up for three albums by this point. Much of this was due to the production—the song, and all of Tales of Creation, benefitted from a massive atmosphere that never lost even one ounce of the crunch. But more than simply the production was the song’s build to and execution of the chorus, which is one for the ages. The simple but perfect call-and-answer that occurs in both the guitars and Messiah’s vocal melody craft such a feeling of gargantuan importance that the fate of literally anything – a life, a nation, the whole gattdang universe – could be on the line in the words of that one robed Swede. Sure, it’s really just about magic or witchcraft or something else like that, but when it feels so much bigger, who cares, right?
SPELL BREAKER[Candlemass, 2005]
Although Messiah Marcolin had only sat out three albums, his reunion with Leif Edling for a new Candlemass album in 2005 was indeed auspicious enough to warrant the fabled “mid/late-career self-titled album” nod. Although Edling had clearly gotten some of his fire back with Krux, his riffs were made for the big man with the big voice, and Candlemass (the album), while both heavier and meaner than the first three albums they made together, is still possessed of the same doomed majesty. “Spellbreaker” galumphs around like a serenely pissed-off elephant, and that’s all before the timeless chorus, in which a glorious riff-and-drums unison sounds like twelve bags of hammers nailing a million downbeats at once. ONE-TWO: “The mother… [pregnant Danzig pause] of life is aaaaaaa… whoooooore.” The whole damn thing is so good they come back for seconds, thirds, a false ending… all of it a celebration of heavy metal ensorcellment. It’s one of many reasons why I don’t mind telling you, friends, that some days, I almost put this album as the band’s third finest, just behind Epicus and Nightfall. Sterling fucking benchmarks, indeed, so come and listen and don’t break the goddamn spell.
EMPEROR OF THE VOID[King of the Grey Islands, 2007]
Robert Lowe’s Solitude Aeturnus had a major run of monster doom albums during what most consider to be Candlemass’ lean years. So naturally, when he was given the Candlemass job, it was right after fans’ hopes had been answered by a beastly new album with Messiah Marcolin. “Listen, new guy, we know your pedigree, but fans are mad because the legend was just shown the door again.” Still, knowing that Lowe got the job was as good a consolation prize as could be expected, and expectations were still pretty high for King of the Grey Islands. Almost immediately, “Emperor of the Void” alleviated any fears about the new Lowe era. The track bursts out with mid-paced doom before the verse gives the spotlight for Lowe’s gravelly croon, and he absolutely owns the moment. The chorus is essential Candlemass—a huge, plodding riff that lands harder than any drum ever could, and a swaggering, dominating vocal line that only a guy of Lowe’s talent can get just right. So yeah, he did okay.
THE WELL OF SOULS[Nightfall, 1987]
“The Well of Souls” could not have introduced the revamped Candlemass any better. It begins by showcasing the powerful, operatic pipes of new vocalist Messiah Marcolin virtually unaccompanied, before launching into a hard-driving, muscular riff. Candlemass Mark II had a little more pep in its step and more metal in its doom metal. Yet, despite the changes, despite turning over 3/5ths of the line-up, “The Well of Souls” shows that the new band follows the old band’s established blueprint: At seven and-a-half minutes long, “The Well of Souls” is a treasure trove of memorable riffs and infectious melodies, a track of dynamic power, dark beauty and planet-crushing heaviness.
SEVEN SILVER KEYS[Candlemass, 2005]
One of my most significant metal disappointments of the last decade occurred when Messiah’s reunion with Candlemass resulted in only one album. Take the good with the bad, though, because that event ended up producing arguably the strongest overall work the band recorded since Nightfall, if not at least on par with the mighty Tales of Creation. Messiah was, of course, the perfect fit for Leif Edling’s vision of a brighter, heavier, often more brisk Candlemass in 2005, and most everything about the self-titled record hit the target in or around dead center. As strong as the full album is, however, it’s the amazing “Seven Silver Keys” that stands out as its most sweeping, somber and infectious moment. The perfect way those airy keys swirl around the song’s principal riff, that brilliant lead that splits the midpoint, and Messiah’s epic effort to vault the chorus into the stratosphere – all paramount to the song’s perfection, and a fundamental piece to an overall puzzle that equates to the most unheralded comeback record to land since Mercyful Fate’s In the Shadows.
DEMON’S GATE[Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, 1986]
The longest epic on Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, “Demons Gate” details a Dante’s Inferno-like journey to Hell. The track has an ear-worm of a main riff, and, of course it’s heavy as hell; these things can be taken for granted in a Candlemass song. It is instead the intricacies of the individual performances that make this song a standout: Edling’s solitary bass interlude, Mats Ekstrom’s double-bass drumming which proves the technique works just as well and is perhaps even more menacing at a slower pace and, lastly, Klas Bergwalls magnificent solo, which is a harrowing journey in and of itself.
Sure, the impregnable doom laid down by Candlemass’s sophomore effort is more than enough reason to consider the record essential, but at least part of the logic behind my obsessive devotion to this thing when it first dropped was thanks to the religious guilt I’d managed to pile up over the years before its release. In truth, I think that was the case for a lot of kids who grew up in spiritual environments in the 80s. Generally good kids falling deeper and deeper into the malevolent side of metal didn’t have a lot of avenues for saying something like “This band just wrote a song about being born again, and they’re darker and heavier than everyone!” As it turned out, Nightfall was the ideal doomed representation of both the dark AND light side of life, which was very unique, and “Samarithan” still stands today as the gloomiest, heaviest and greatest metal tune ever recorded that illustrates the virtue humanity is capable of bestowing. Pinnacle doom.
AT THE GALLOWS END[Nightfall, 1987]
On an album as perfect as Nightfall, highlighting individual songs seems almost superfluous. However, if you really pushed me, I’d highlight “At the Gallows End” as not just the album’s best song, but possibly as the best Candlemass song ever. But rather than dissect how structurally sound the song is, or how it showcases nearly the full range of Leif Edling’s myriad riff-writing talents, just… just go listen to that goddamned chorus, would you? To put it baldly: they don’t make ’em like that anymore. While Messiah Marcolin could rarely be accused of anything less than singing his vibrato’d guts out, here he is given one of the most potent combinations of melody and words to work with, and the way the first half of the chorus pits his descending melody against the ascending melody of the guitar but then brings them into sync for the second half? Unreproducible magic.
UNDER THE OAK[Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, 1986, Tales of Creation, 1989]
We’re not even going to mess around here: “Under the Oak” is a perfect doom song. “Under the Oak” might be the perfect doom song, period. Monolithic riffs foreboding the coming of the end; lyrics about the rapture or the eternal search for truth or something; a nuanced vocal performance communicating everything from sadness and sorrow to desperation and acceptance; and those leads… those perfect, weeping leads that communicate so much more than a few plucked strings should be capable of. From Johan Längquist’s great statement of sorrow in the song’s climax to the final iteration of the signature lead motif, every aspect of this song is the work of mastery.
The song was, of course, rerecorded for Tales of Creation. Despite being a touch crunchier and featuring different soloing courtesy of the great Lars Johansson, the most notable differences obviously come via Messiah Marcolin’s vocals. Where Längquist grew more desperate throughout the song, Marcolin is more subtle, going not for high registers, but for smaller inflections. Most notably, the smallest of additions before those signature leads, somehow making the whole thing even more stunning.
So really, both versions are the perfect doom metal song, and equally essential moments on the albums from which they come.