Edge of Sanity never fit in. Although they spent their formative years during the rise of Swedish death metal, they never released a classic regular death metal album, nor did they do the obvious thing and record at Sunlight Studios with Tomas Skogsberg. Hell, they didn’t even truly adopt the full chewy, buzzsaw “Sunlight Sound” until they used it for a very un-Sunlight album.
Edge of Sanity never fit in because the five men that usually made up Edge of Sanity – vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Swanö, guitarist Andreas Axelsson, guitarist Sami Nerberg, bassist Anders Lindberg, and drummer Benny Larsson – never really wanted to fit in. They were never at all content with being normal, which may or may not have had something to do with naming an album Unorthodox, but definitely had a lot to do with their music eventually including everything from pop hooks and goth rock vocals to the celebrated prog of Crimson.
Their career was brief – it originally ran from just 1989 to 1997 before a one-off Dan Swanö revival in 2003 – but it played out like an episode of Behind the Music. The range they covered and evolution they showed over this time (it was only five years from the debut to Crimson) was unmatched by most of their more famous, conventional Swedeath brethren. As such, they didn’t last long past the peak of this evolution, and Swanö himself was content exploring his various ideas through a multitude of other bands and projects.
This month marks 25 years since the release of band’s massive breakthrough The Spectral Sorrows, while Crimson II turned 15 in August. So there’s no time like the present to delve into the unattainable highs (no fewer than four undeniable classics) and merely mediocre lows (anything that somehow failed to be an undeniable classic) of Edge of Sanity’s oft-schizo, always fascinating career. They never fit in, and because of this, there never was and never will be anyone quite like them.
AN (UN)ORTHODOX BEGINNING
Edge of Sanity formed in 1989 with a lineup that would remain mostly intact for several years, first cutting their teeth on a series of demos that showed them to be a competent albeit pretty conventional death metal band. Many of these songs were polished up for the first two full lengths, both of which also showed them to be a competent albeit pretty conventional death metal band. There were hints, but if anything showed their true promise during this era it was their restlessness. In the span of only four years, the band released those two full lengths and cut no fewer than seven demos. They learned fast because they worked fast.
1991: NOTHING BUT DEATH REMAINS
To call Nothing But Death Remains a humble beginning almost seems like an insult, because it truly only seems humble compared to what would follow. On its own, Edge of Sanity’s debut is a really good bit of early Swedish death metal; second tier early Swedish death metal, sure, but we’re talking about an era that produced such albums as Like An Everflowing Stream, Dark Recollections, and Clandestine. By comparison, Nothing But Death Remains still showcased the promise of a very promising band. It’s over in a flash, containing not even 32 total minutes of pummeling riffs, neck-breaking speed and rhythm changes (when this things finds the lurch, it rules), some of Dan Swanö’s most haggard growls, and those special kinds of demented harmonies. Even here the band had such a vibe, such a feel for what they were playing that things gelled. It thumped, but had atmosphere; it grooved, but got punchy. Most importantly: it riffed, a lot.
Had Edge of Sanity not gone onto greater things, Nothing But Death Remains would be the type of album that your extra knowledgeable buddy shows you as some special secret of the era. The band’s vision may not have been apparent at this point, but their talent certainly was.
The expansion of Edge of Sanity’s scope on Unorthodox was evident the moment you saw the run time: at over 57 minutes on the CD version, it was nearly double the length of the debut. Like the debut, it sped and blasted and lurched and crawled, offering plenty of death metal fairly standard for the era. But that was just the foundation; Edge of Sanity used that copious run time as an excuse to begin spreading their wings. There were intros and interludes, songs that showed off their progressive metal and atmospheric rock influences (the 7-minute, multi-part “Enigma”), tracks that were as dark as anything they ever wrote (“Everlasting” and haunting doom/death closer “When All Is Said”), and little touches of keys, bells, and piano to go with all of the requisite violence (cutthroat near-grinders like “Incipience to the Butchery”).
Still, for the most part Unorthodox was a Regular Death Metal Album, and a pretty good one, if still more promising than truly great (the run time was both a blessing and a curse; it’s hard to stay focused through the whole album). There were real signs that Edge of Sanity had grander designs, however, at least compared to what was being released by many of their peers.The next phase would realize these designs, but even Edge of Sanity’s highest highs can’t wash away the fun of their beginnings.
Much of the first two albums was written during the band’s demo period, so what came after was not only fresh, but a massive jump in quality and originality. From 1993 to 1996 Edge of Sanity released three wildly different full lengths and tossed in an EP because three albums couldn’t quite contain all of their ideas. This peak period saw the band stake their claim as one of Swedeath’s true kings and then immediately move on from a scene they had just conquered. It was a four year run that could rival most in metal history.
1993: THE SPECTRAL SORROWS
This was the moment when Edge of Sanity stepped out from behind the Entombeds and Dismembers and grabbed their own kind of Swedeath brass ring. The ripping, razor-sharp first riffs of “Darkday” are absolutely the band’s “we have arrived” moment, and the rest of the song made it clear that Edge of Sanity had fully embraced melody as an element of their sound. But this was melodeath before people were really calling it melodeath, and the band had abandoned none of the violent edge or gleeful thump of their earlier works.
Their confidence was through the roof and their inspiration shown through 54 sprawling minutes of instant hits. “Lost” had verses that wouldn’t be out of place on Tiamat’s Clouds (minus the vampire vocals) and a growling chorus for the ages; “Across the Fields of Forever” so nailed the doom/death that it could have been released on Peaceville; “The Masque” hinted at their progressive tendencies; “On the Other Side” got introspective and briefly shows off Swanö’s cleans; etcetera etcetera and so on and so forth. There wasn’t a lean moment on the record, and there were a few curveballs. First was a cover of Manowar’s “Blood of My Enemies,” which was as odd as it was fun lobbed in between all that death metal. Later was the diversion of “Sacrificed,” which saw Edge of Sanity kind of trying to be The Sisters of Mercy a few years before Paradise Lost made it their new career path.
The variety of originals and that one weird cover all combined to give the album an immense, undeniable charm. The Spectral Sorrows was their first of four classics, and none of the others would be quite the same.
1994: UNTIL ETERNITY ENDS
We interrupt your regularly scheduled classic album run for an intermission EP:
“These are 4 songs that we felt didn’t fit the album that we are busy writing right now. But we like the songs and wanted them out somehow. This is NOT a taster of our upcoming CD! The 4th CD Purgatory Afterglow will take off where Unorthodox left! C-Ya!”
That was written on the back of Until Eternity Ends. For a lot of bands, an EP consisting of three moderately unconventional originals and an oddball cover (The Police’s “Invisible Sun”) definitely wouldn’t fit on their standard albums. But you noted the weird parts of The Spectral Sorrows, right? Nothing Edge of Sanity was doing at this point in their career would have been shocking, so the fact that they felt they had to warn their fans is kind of… adorable. (If you get Swanö Merch’s emails, you’ll likely recognize such goofy exuberance.)
Musically, Until Eternity Ends was where Edge of Sanity went ever-so-slightly alt metal (at times it feels like Blind or River Runs Red gone death metal). If anything, it only further proved that, even when they were making stuff that “didn’t fit the album,” Edge of Sanity was still on an unstoppable tear.
1994: PURGATORY AFTERGLOW
On paper, especially in 1994, Purgatory Afterglow was a record that absolutely shouldn’t have worked – it opens with nothing but soft keys and “The Swanö Cröön” like it’s some sort of Barry Manilow tribute, after all – and yet every damn second of it is pure gold. After its overture, opener “Twilight” featured heaps of monstrously chewy melodeath riffs, bottom-heavy growls, and a chorus as catchy as it is damning. It’s a varied collection of sounds that the album then used as a jumping-off point. The rest of the record offered everything from croony death’n’roll (“Blood-Colored,” complete with x-machines) and unabashed pop (“Black Tears”) to straightforward death metal (“Enter Chaos”) and melodic doom/death (“Velvet Dreams”).
Plus icy tremolo riffs, some groove, acoustic passages, and playful faux-neoclassical leads. Plus plus more actual singing from Swanö, who had fully embraced his croon. Plus plus PLUS the production. It’s a fine bit of hilarity that Edge of Sanity never dove fully into the standard Swedeath sound until they released their most accessible record. It’s like they wanted to embrace their Stockholm peers while rejecting their convention, and all they did in the process was highlight their idiosyncratic nature.
There’s a lot going on, and it never feels disjointed. Only one band could have pulled this off, and Edge of Sanity did so brilliantly. Purgatory Afterglow is a catchy, varied, crazy heavy, and at times downright effervescent album. It was also their second straight classic full length.
What Edge of Sanity did in 1996 wasn’t just surprising on the heels of their most accessible record; it was surprising for the whole of death metal. In the mid-90s, extreme metal bands were barely making any concept albums, let alone those consisting of one continuous 40-minute song. In a way, Crimson was “The Ivory Gate of Dreams” for death metal–a composition of progressive structure and massive vision that gave no heed to normal song lengths. Sure, there had been long death and black metal songs prior to this, but Crimson was truly high concept in a way nothing with growling vocals had ever been before.
And it was incredible.
Crimson took all of the tools Edge of Sanity had gathered over their first several releases and employed them over a deathly serious album about a doomed far future society. Mega-thick riffs, blazing tremolo passages, blasts and rock drives, sweeping melodies, impassioned clean vocals, and tortured screams (including some Mikael Åkerfeldt guest vocals) all made up a wide set of motifs that the song would cycle around each other, offering little changes as it moved towards its finish. Every passage was crafted from the finest pure elements, with the main harrowing riff being permanently embedded in your head from the first time you hear it. This was the type of album for which the term “crowning achievement” was coined.
Every high concept, single-composition extreme metal album since owes a debt to Edge of Sanity and Crimson. Without it, there may never have been a Catch Thirtythree, Cybion, Winter’s Gate, or Pleiades’ Dust (Dan Swanö himself was part of another such record in Diabolical Masquerade’s Death’s Design). But even taken independent of its importance, Crimson remains a gargantuan record, and was instantly Edge of Sanity’s third classic.
Where does a band go once it has climbed the tallest of peaks? Well, in Edge of Sanity’s case, the only place to go was a downward slope and premature demise. While their declining years never saw them release a true clunker, merely failing to match what they did at their height felt like a failure.
When examined in retrospect, it’s clear that the overall goal of Inferno was to make Purgatory Afterglow Part 2, and while it has that mix of death metal, gothic vocals, and catchy hooks, it lacks its inspiration’s cohesion and lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance. Overall, Inferno mostly sounds… confused. Unrest in the Edge of Sanity camp – Swanö and Axelsson were at odds about the direction of the band – undoubtedly led to some of this confusion. A couple songs with Axelsson on lead vocals were particularly evident of the album’s fragmented feel (to say he lacked the vocal talents of Swanö is an understatement), while only a partial commitment to the corny pop hooks made certain songs sound insincere (“Losing Myself” is definitely no “Black Tears”).
Still, there remain some great moments. “Forever Together Forever” is a beastly bit of melodeath as driven by Swanö’s growls as it is by infectious leads and Larsson’s punchy, varying rhythms, while “Burn the Sun” is a quality bit of near-doom/death. As a whole, Inferno wasn’t too much worse than the first couple records, but because it came immediately after their most brilliant period – and not in the lead up to it – it is rightly viewed as the beginning of the end. Timing, as they say, is everything.
The strife felt between Swanö and Axelsson during the recording of Inferno would ultimately boil over, leading to Swanö’s departure. The resulting album, the back-to-basics, no-nonsense Cryptic is well, not bad at all. In fact, if this came out in 2018, the reaction would be something along the lines of “pretty good Edge of Sanity worship.” But that’s the issue right there; without Swanö’s voice, Cryptic just didn’t feel like a full Edge of Sanity record. Replacement vocalist Roberth Karlsson – who ironically worked with Swanö in avant-garde band Pan.Thy.Monium – did a respectable enough job, but even as just a straight growler Dan was one of the best in the business, to say nothing of what his singing added.
The record’s streamlined nature was therefore both a wise decision and a necessity of the lineup; they played it safe because they had to play it safe. The result was an album that didn’t have a single bad song, but also didn’t really have one truly great song. Not even six months after the release of Cryptic, Swanö would release his brilliant solo record Moontower, really showing where the band’s creative force had gone.
AWAKENED FROM HIS CRIMSON SLEEP
Thankfully, this diminished era would not be Edge of Sanity’s final strike. Six years later, Dan Swanö reemerged with a massive project that was originally intended as a solo album but was clearly of the Edge of Sanity mold. It may not have reformed the band or really any band, but it gave the Edge of Sanity name the send off it deserved.
2003: CRIMSON II
It’s a testament to Swanö’s gargantuan stature among extreme metal heroes that the Edge of Sanity album that only features him seems far more of an Edge of Sanity album than the one that had everyone but him. (Crimson II did have plenty of guests, including lyrics by prog stalwart Clive Nolan, but let’s not muddy the waters here: this is still absolutely Dan’s record.) This is arguably unfair to the other four men that helped to craft their 90s achievements, but when you hear Cryptic next to Crimson II, the reasons are obvious.
Put simply, Crimson II was a triumphant return for Edge of Sanity as a concept, if not as a full band. Like the original, it was one massive piece of music across several movements, brilliantly woven to seem far shorter than its total 43-minute length. And while it maintained (or inverted) certain motifs and melodies from the original, Crimson II is more than just a sequel. If anything, the greatness of the sequel only served to enhance the original retroactively by both paying homage and forging new ground. The addition of far more keys and synths enhanced the sci-fi, futuristic vibes while also adding to the album’s overall heightened “proggy” feel (it has an unsurprising affinity with Moontower). It was the most technical and precise of any album bearing the Edge of Sanity name, with Swanö handling everything other than a few solos and vocal parts. There was also a shift in mood. If Crimson felt like the telling of a tragic history, Crimson II felt like events happening before our very eyes… or ears.
Crimson II was every bit the colossal masterpiece as the original. And like the original, the sequel is crushing, imaginative, harrowing, and beautiful. More than that, it was undeniably the fourth classic released under the Edge of Sanity name, and a glorious send off of the band’s complex but peerless legacy.