Every year, an "it" band or the "buzz" band emerges in the hard rock and metal scene. It's the band that has everyone talking, from fans engaging in discussions deep in the digital space and on the viral online level to the industry insiders that are tracking the band's every move and charting its growth.
Progressive death metal Black Crown Initiate have proven themselves to be that band in 2014.
But it's not a fleeting status nor are they a "here today, gone tomorrow" product of hype. Black Crown Initiate have the metallic chops, the surgically precise skills, and a firm grasp of mind-blowing dynamics, all of which come together to cement their status as a band to watch for years to come, not just in 2014.
Armed with the independently released, four-track and 22-minute Song of the Crippled Bull EP and a coveted spot on the Metal Alliance Tour, Black Crown Initiate steadily built a name for themselves with a DIY ethos throughout 2013. While many bands pay lip service to that concept, Pennsylvania's Black Crown Initiate, who craft thinking man's hard rock that's heavier than granite and that is smart without being esoteric, were too busy doing it instead of saying it. They caught the attention of several labels with their potent and unforgettable extended play release, eventually signing with eOne in 2014.
Their label debut The Wreckage of Stars is the next step for Black Crown Initiate and one that will further put them on the metal map. It's a sonically thrilling, 10-song opus, drafted by musicians who embrace the darkness and who masterfully craft mini-epics; most songs exceed the five-minute mark. From the opening salvo of "Great Mistake," with its heavy artillery riffing and torrent of thunderous percussion, which sound like detonated bombs, to the dirgey hymn that is the title track, to the nightmarishly fast and fierce "Shapes Collapse," The Wreckage of Stars will establish Black Crown Initiate as one of metal's finest up-and-comers.
Guitarist/clean vocalist/lyricist Andy Thomas reveals that his band, which formed in February 2013 and experienced minor lineup changes before solidifying into the unit it is today, chose to put their debut EP out via Bandcamp and iTunes, letting it marinate and find an audience and industry buzz organically, as opposed to pounding the pavement to secure a deal. That approach allowed Black Crown Initiate to retain their artistic integrity.
"We were going to make the album we wanted to make," Thomas said. "We paid for it out of our own pockets, to say that we did. Through that, some important people started reaching out to us."
Now, with a new label deal in hand, Black Crown Initiate continued on the path that got them where they are and that's making the kind of music they want to make. Aesthetically, their foundation is heavy metal, but they seek to expand on that sound with increased attention to dynamics and other provocative elements, like posing poignant lyrical questions that will make the listener think, re-think and think it over some more.
"Musically, we listen to many different types of music, but our music reflects life," Thomas said. "We seek to be dynamic. Like life. People are born. People die. There is sadness, happiness, despair and everything in between. We want our music to be like that. We want our music to have dynamics like life does. To ebb and to flow, like life does. We all grew up with heavy music and that is in my DNA, as it is with everyone else in the band. But we try to be as adult about it as we can. We are grown men screaming at the top of our lungs, as Devin Townsend says!"
Being adult about their musical approach means having the courage to explore things in the space of the songs and to not be afraid to go where they are least expected to go.
The members of Black Crown Initiate have been in different projects, both separately and together. But they have an understanding which unifies them and that's the Friedrich Nietzsche theme of eternal recurrence, which theorizes that the universe is recurring and that it recurs an infinite amount of times. The Wreckage of Stars explores other topics, but there is a consistent thematic thread and lyrical connective tissue. So the band is maintaining continuity while expanding and branching out.
Thomas admits he takes inspiration from philosopher Nietzsche and The Nihilist and that he embraces his views about liberation. While the EP explored Hindu symbolism, with the title being a reference to the last age before the universe summarily destroys then restores itself, there is also some Buddhist symbolism on the new album. But Black Crown Initiate don't merely offer a mild or careless interpretation of these concepts. They admit to trying to figure them out in the confines of their music.
"It is all largely perverted, since I am from the West, and I don't fully understand things, and I don't necessarily believe all of it. I am a negative person, admittedly so. I'm not afraid to say, 'This isn't working and it's not alright,'" Thomas said. He effectively explores and tries to make sense of these ideas in his lyrics which is, as he mentioned earlier, a lot like life.
"The conclusion is there no sense to be made, since you are human," he said. "It's an illusory reality to begin with. Your senses help you filter reality, and narrow down your perception so your brain can function."
Clearly, Black Crown Initiate are making intelligent metal that will take the listener places they never expect and force them to ask a lot of tough questions.
One song that evidences this fact is the blustery, herculean "Withering Waves," the music of which was written two years ago and was based on recurring dream that Thomas had where he was drowning. It also comes with unexpected and unpredictable lyrical patterns.
"I couldn't play it due to the speed and the guitar techniques," Thomas admitted. "A lot of it utilizes economy picking. I had to work on being relaxed enough to play at that speed over and over again. But what is interesting is that the song, when I wrote it musically, it sounds like a death metal song, like [Swedish band] Spawn of Possession. When I wrote words and vocal melodies, the majority of the vocals are clean. It ended up being a tech death metal song with catchy clean vocals over most it. I did not intend for that to happen but I guess I don't intend for anything. That's when you realize you really don't have that kind of control over your music."
Thomas admits that he sometimes hears music in his dreams and the song "Withering Waves" is one such case. He said, "I told myself the next time I hear it in a dream, I will do my best to wake up and get it down somehow, record it or something, so I could remember it. When I woke up with this dream. I knew how to play it and picked up a guitar and it was there. It's the only time it ever happened. but that is how I figured out the lyrics."
Vocalist James Dorton, who has a commanding speaking voice and is quite an unforgettable vocal presence on the album, is a military brat who cut his teeth in bands in Oklahoma and Delaware as he moved around. He has a singular goal as a frontman, one that he appears to have achieved on The Wreckage of Stars.
"I am never happy or satisfied," he confessed. "I want to do better each time. I want [them] to be as inhuman, monstrous and old God-sounding as possible. But [the vocals] also have variety and are intended to invoke other things."
As the lyrical and vocal tandem, Thomas and Dorton had plenty of intense discussions about the words to the songs. "Personal relationship issues influenced the album," Dorton admitted, so the album is not all about questions and higher philosophical thought. "That is a major theme, but also the theme of eternal recurrence, and the concept of how the universe works and how we dilute ourselves."
Dorton points to the title track as a vocally direct song. "The lyrics are almost totally audible, and enunciated and with good reason," he said. "It's not a happy message. It's not necessarily unhappy, either. From my personal standpoint, a lot of lyrics are written to be interpreted by the listener and to affect your personally"
Then there is the album closer "Linear," which features more unexpected and atypical elements, like a cello and a Nick Drake influence. "We end the album with a different turn," Dorton said, suggesting that fans listen closely since "it is a different way of relaying the same message in the rest of the album."
Essentially, Black Crown Initiate are building on their EP in a multi-dimensional way, fusing progressive, death and doom in a seamless way. Listeners can expect their senses to tingle, thanks the complex and complicated music, and to have their brains stimulated as well with The Wreckage of Stars.
That's precisely why Black Crown Initiate are one of, if not, the band to watch in 2014 and beyond.