Heavy metal and gimmickry have had a complicated relationship since the very day the genre first crawled from the primordial soup. When the strategy has worked, the results have been remarkable: KISS, Mercyful Fate / King Diamond, Venom, GWAR, Ghost, et al. When it flops, however, the consequences are damning: *cough*Ghost Bath*cough*, plus about a hundred other examples where style or schtick manages to outweigh substance. Bottom line: You can be damn-near anything within the no holds barred realm of heavy metal, but “false” is definitely not one of them.
For Sarasota, Florida’s Crimson Glory, as it was for countless others attempting to get an early foothold amidst a swirling maelstrom of new acts, the gimmick was simply intended to prompt curiosity—the age-old “we consume with our eyes first” adage that inspired bands to drink from goblets of fake blood in promo pics, and equally prompted artists like Arthur Brown and Alice Cooper to crank up the spectacle from the stage. Granted, looking back on Crimson Glory’s early utilization of extremely silver masks may seem almost effortless during an age when it’s not at all uncommon to witness band members dressed as space ninjas or… whatever the hell antique furniture Portal decides to morph into next, but the shininess worked to draw our attention 35-plus years ago. And really, what sort of cold-hearted 80’s rambler wouldn’t be won over by a band that looked like James Cameron’s vision of Ratt if they’d traveled back from 2029 to the mid-80s.
Upon seeing the Crimson Glory members circa 1986 through the eyes of the modern age, the first question to spring to mind could very well be: “What the hell were they thinking?” Which, you know, is a perfectly reasonable challenge, given 20/20 hindsight and most of metal’s current disinterest toward aerosol hairsprays. Well, turns out, Crimson Glory also wondered what the hell they were thinking, because following some early shows demonstrating just how bloody hot the full masks were while performing all the guitaring, drumming, bassing, and singing live, they made the entirely justifiable switch to half-masks by the time they released their sophomore effort, Transcendence. Still a shiny band, for certain, but now with the added benefit of actually being able to breathe.
On the whole, however, the masks worked in that they did indeed snare attention, and a band in the mid-80s definitely needed to explore any and all avenues when your debut landed via a tiny local label run by a husband and wife team (Par Records) and immediately got its marching orders amidst an army of 1986 heavyweights that included (in part):
- Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus
- Cirith Ungol – One Foot In Hell
- Cryptic Slaughter – Convicted
- Fastway – Trick or Treat
- Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
- Flotsam & Jetsam – Doomsday for the Deceiver
- Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time
- King Diamond – Fatal Portrait
- Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
- M.A.R.S. – Project: Driver
- Manilla Road – The Deluge
- Megadeth – Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying?
- Metal Church – The Dark
- Metallica – Master of Puppets
- Motörhead – Orgasmatron
- Ozzy Osbourne – The Ultimate Sin
- Queensrÿche – Rage for Order
- Saint Vitus – Born Too Late
- Sepultura – Morbid Visions
- Sodom – Obsessed by Cruelty
- Sortilège – L’armes De Heros
- Voivod – Rrröööaaarrr
- W.A.S.P. – Inside the Electric Circus
- Whiplash – Power and Pain
- Yngwie Malmsteen – Trilogy
As evidenced by the stack above, metal trends in ’86 were very diverse, with scores of bands finding interesting ways to turn up the heat and extremity, while others were more mindful of melody and hopeful for commercial success. Crimson Glory was clearly a willing party to the latter, delivering a record directly comparable to Rage for Order and trotting alongside kindred US power releases that pushed for more progression, namely Awaken the Guardian and Heir Apparent’s masterful 1986 debut, Graceful Inheritance. The Crimson Glory formula featured a touch more hard rock / glam, though—clearly not close to the level realized through Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, Cinderella’s Night Songs, or the Vinnie Vincent Invasion debut, all of which hit shelves in 1986, but a degree of strut that made it analogous to fellow underground contenders Cerebus (Too Late to Pray, 1986) and Fifth Angel’s eponymous 1986 debut.
Despite the splashes of sass, Crimson Glory is still a very metal sounding album fitting of the time. Sure, a certain sense of hip-swiveling hard rock hovers, but with themes spanning everything from Norse mythology to the Challenger disaster to slow descents into madness, plus a near limitless amount of fiery leads attached to the overall swagger, it wasn’t terribly surprising to discover the band tacked to tours that included the likes of Celtic Frost and Metal Church. Listen to an opener like “Valhalla”—a fiercely melodic strutter boasting the lyrics “Winds of Odin guide us / Over violent seas, the silent grave / Gods of thunder / Roaring, crackling power / In flashing light, they pound the night”—and recognize just how high the band set the bar for potent US power right from the jump.
That voice… That unmistakable voice that so often gets mentioned first the moment a conversation turns to Crimson Glory. Vocalist John Patrick “Midnight” McDonald was a godsend, and his introduction to the band seemed fit for a lost Hollywood script: A school chum of bassist Jeff Lords from long bygone years is found singing on a Florida beach, having never really cared about heavy metal prior to that very moment, and he gets yanked into the studio and subsequently nails that perfectly clear and piercing wail heard 2:45 into “Valhalla” right off the bat. Only adding to his charisma, he shifts seamlessly from the charged opener right into a saucier / sassier cut like “Dragon Lady” without breaking a sweat, demonstrating an extraordinary range with just the perfect amount of grit that allows him to accommodate multiple moods and styles.
About those shifting moods: Another defining characteristic of Crimson Glory is the manner in which the album balances so many different moods without ever falling too far outside the lines of a very congruent whole—evidence of the sort of sharp songwriting acumen one might not expect from a debut delivered by a brand new band. Following an opening ripper and the brassy “Dragon Lady,” Side A finishes off with two cuts that explore the early power / progressive realm’s penchant for weaving epics that blend dark, serene mellowness with compensatory stretches of fiery energy. “Heart of Steel” opens with a somber and sweeping measure that’s punctuated by Midnight’s delicate and smooth croon, but it quickly shifts into a belter that eventually delivers a burning lead torn straight from the playbook of George Lynch at its midpoint. As strong as “Heart of Steel” is, though, it’s actually outdone by the equally immersive “Azrael,” a shadowy epic with a bit more of a hard-rocking edge that flexes a surprisingly aggressive (damn-near evangelic) narrative that underscores severe lyrics such as, “Beware my eyes’ll find you / and see into your heart / and if you hold the evil / I’ll rip you all apart / I’ll cast your soul to Satan / die by holy fire / rise and stand before me / burning on the pyre… burn!”
Side B of Crimson Glory kicks off with the biggest face-peeler of the record; “Mayday” provides all the speed and bright fierceness anyone hoping to taste the full potential of Crimson Glory’s metal face might hope to hear. When lit to fire, the guitar duo of Jon Drenning (lead) and Ben Jackson (rhythm) build a tower of careening energy that’s pushed to toppling by the charged drumming of Dana Burnell, the relentless spring of Jeff Lords’ bass, and Midnight’s highly urgent, klaxon vocals.
“Mayday” closes out its intensity with a sudden patch of reverse play that bleeds directly into what becomes the sassiest tune of the record, “Queen of the Masquerade.” This flashy little burner features another masterful nod to George Lynch’s lead guitar sorcery at its centerpoint before jumping into a surprisingly bouncy stretch that’s emphasized by a notably robust and frisky bass run. The ensuing “Angels of War” is equally swaggering, but with a stronger trad metal face that pays clear homage to the Powerslave era of Iron Maiden once it hits its full stride.
The album’s finale emerges as the biggest surprise of the bunch; hearkening back to an age when metal bands were bold enough to end records on ballads, “Lost Reflection” offers up a brutally stark and reflective glimpse into madness that showcases just how dramatic and visceral Midnight’s voice was at its peak. The song is every bit as theatrical as a King Diamond anthem, and one would have to harbor a particularly pitiless heart to not be moved by the doomed emotion Midnight conveys as he relents to perpetual solitude following a bout of deranged cackling. His echoed wail of “You’re not me” backed with light strings and backward masking still stands as one of the more chilling endings for a record to date.
In the end, the release of Crimson Glory in 1986 set into motion just about everything a young band could ever hope to accomplish with a debut offering: recognition and reputation from fans and glossy magazines alike; a recording contract with a big label, Roadrunner / Roadracer (which turned out to be a union that—according to the band—did not have Crimson Glory’s best interests in mind); and plenty of opportunity to flex their unique brand of power from the stage, including a coveted spot at Hammersmith Odeon in 1987. All at once, any and all things seemed achievable for a young band freshly broken from the hotbed of Sarasota / Tampa and diving into an exceptionally crowded scene.
Crimson Glory’s sophomore effort, 1988’s Transcendence, received even more acclaim, going so far as to eventually net recognition as “one of the greatest progressive metal albums of all time” by peers and purists alike. On a personal note, while I certainly wouldn’t look down my nose at anyone’s preference to see Transcendence spotlighted by a feature such as this over the debut, I confess Crimson Glory eked out the victory simply by virtue of arriving first, and also because I still find the choice to underscore Synclavier drumming even more on Transcendence in an effort to “sound more cutting edge” and “closer to Def Leppard” did not actually do the record much favor, particularly in hindsight. From my standpoint, where Transcendence finds the band reaching their peak with respect to songwriting, the overall production on Crimson Glory gives it a superior edge in terms of heaviness. And yes, it is rather strange to think the engineering team behind both records, Morrisound Studios, would go on to produce some of the heaviest death metal the world would ever encounter.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a story fit for Hollywood without a sad twist: The limitless potential for the band—and for vocalist Midnight in particular—was cut short soon after Transcendence. Members split following a successful late-80’s tour, due largely to developing directional differences, and the band’s third release, Strange and Beautiful—by far their most commercial work—didn’t come close to achieving its intended level of enthusiasm with the public at large. Midnight’s mental and physical health began to decline as he turned to alcohol to cope with lofty expectations, and he left Crimson Glory before the Strange and Beautiful tour even managed to kick off. From there, things crumbled.
A lengthy stretch of mostly silent years amidst thwarted attempts to begin a solo career followed, but Midnight eventually fought his way through his alcoholism and revitalized his spirit with a renewed commitment to a healthier lifestyle, surrounded by positive influences. Sadly, as is all too often the case, fate’s hand remained pitiless: On July 8th, 2009, John Patrick “Midnight” McDonald succumbed to a stomach aneurysm with family and close friends at his bedside. That very same year, the remaining Crimson Glory members paid tribute to their friend by headlining the venerable ProgPower fest in Atlanta, GA, which, in a turn for the better, included a guest-spot by current Queensrÿche vocalist Todd La Torre (among a great many others), effectively launching his career as a vocalist.
Without question, Crimson Glory and Midnight left a brilliant and indelible mark on heavy metal, influencing countless individuals and bands in their wake. While it’s admittedly pretty fun to fritter away time debating over which of their first two records is most deserving of the ultimate crown (most would likely vote Transcendence), sometimes the most crucial option is the choice to commemorate the moment when the sorcery first left the fingertips. In this spirit, let’s give Crimson Glory’s remarkable debut yet another righteous salute.