Frustration with the necessary community of man and the existential dread resultant of misrepresentation is a state of mind drawn from the very heart and inception of heavy metal. This comes in no small part thanks to the blue collar origins of well-known Birmingham townies and their pre-cocaine blues-birthed catharsis that’d spread across the states and Europe throughout the 70’s towards ‘doomed’ resignation as a practice and a sacred tradition upheld today. Any measure of harrowing fantastical misanthropy and/or numbed-over self abuses leak their bloody tears beyond those traditions today yet, it is always this very personal cycle of frustration and resignation that expresses as prime and everlasting genetic trait in doom metal past and present. Peter Vicar (Kimi Kärki) and Albert Witchfinder‘s (Sami Hynninen) Reverend Bizarre might’ve appeared as a serious and heavily influential force in the resurgence of doom metal popularity worldwide throughout the early 2000’s yet to many they’d become either an interesting (and heavy) experiment or a jocular cartoon by the time ‘III: So Long Suckers’ bid farewell in 2007. There was certainly great existential pain in that farewell and with its closing door a great momentum stirred darker black wind upon Kärki‘s wings; The quick turnaround towards Lord Vicar birthed one of the single darkest doom metal records ever recorded. ‘Fear No Pain’ (2008) was not a collaboration but, a collection of songs largely meant for Reverend Bizarre, though Kärki had assembled a legendary crew and band for its occasion it was a bit of an outlier in their discography until today as we gratefully receive their fourth album and a return to the dark, ‘The Black Powder’. It is a heavier-than-thou doom metal album defined and enhanced by its cathartic frustration, brief bouts of mania, and eventual resignation.
Lord Vicar was exactly the sort of happening any doom metal musician would see as a dream project in that Kärki had staffed an energetic and talented drummer in Gareth Millstead (Centurion’s Ghost) and returned vocalist Christian Linderson (Python, ex-Saint Vitus, ex-Count Raven, ex-Terra Firma) to the greater doom metal pantheon where he’d belonged all while still nourishing the distinct sound design and songwriting style he’d more or less made a name with as he became the most persistent force in Reverend Bizarre. Why more folks don’t see ‘Fear No Pain’ as the modern day classic that it is has baffled me since release, it is a masterpiece of true doom metal that is still relatively overlooked eleven years later. ‘Signs of Osiris’ (2011) is something almost entirely different and the first record where Kärki would slightly loosen the reigns of creative control. I’d consider it the ‘Hallow’s Victim’ in their discography and it remains almost even more underrated than the first record. Chritus would soon join heavy psych/doom metal project Goatess and record two albums over the next handful of years, Kärki would release both a solo album and a second Orne record, so it’d seem that by the time they’d reconvene to record ‘Gates of Flesh’ (2016) in 2015 their next step was a bit ‘off’. The compact disc mistakenly had the entire record on one track, the songwriting was brief yet somehow less focused, and Chritus‘ vocal range appeared at its least expressive and varietal. It wasn’t such a disaster though it did serve to kill any momentum remaining beyond the wide gap beyond ‘Born of Osiris’. In the simplest of terms, ‘The Black Powder’ remedies this by returning to the heart of Lord Vicar‘s inception without entirely forgetting where they’ve been since.
Split between Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland the band would reconvene as a trio this fourth time just as they had for the third, with a second release under guidance of Joona Lukala at Noise for Fiction studio in Turku, Finland. Lukala is best known for his mastering (and remastering) skills though he has produced some fine records from other Turku based bands such as Mansion and Axegressor more recently. For ‘The Black Powder’ Lord Vicar have taken full advantage of the spacious organic studio and Lukala’s sense of powerful sound design; Kärki‘s guitar growls bigger and the bass guitar erupts through the middle of the mix far more than it has since maybe 2008. As the record plays it becomes clear that Lord Vicar‘s intentions were a return to that prior bombast while avoiding the level of repetition that drove comparisons to Reverend Bizarre when ‘Fear No Pain’ released. In terms of sheer sonic heaviness and classic doom metal style, ‘The Black Powder’ could inevitably bear some comparison with ‘II: Crush the Insects’ if one did not account for the fourteen years of individual growth since. There are few doom metal albums today that transcend influences and express as immediate exemplar works but to see ‘The Black Powder’ as anything less than a modern day classic would be foolish. I’m not aware of the songwriting situation on ‘Gates of Flesh’ but it’d seem that the songwriting duties are now split equally between Kärki and Millstead where each brought four songs and they’d co-author “Black Lines” additionally. Perhaps equally important it seems Chritus‘ is a thousand times more engaged and impassioned with his own lyrics in head and hand, he’s a bit less vodka soaked and ‘on the edge’ as he’d been on ‘Fear No Pain’ but ‘The Black Powder’ showcases his expressive range and narrative talents beyond already high expectations. A mercilessly heavy and gorgeously rendered pure doom metal album results, and is thus far stands as a major contender for album of the year, for my taste.
There is no way the tracklist simply fell into place by chance. ‘The Black Powder’ has a pace and a presence that feels intentional as a guided trip, not the two act separation as many modern heavy metal records manage but, several intense peaks and valleys that reveal deeply satisfying nuance through familiarity. “Sulfur, Charcoal and Saltpeter” is a first act in and of itself with a nearly eighteen minute stretch of doom thesis for a world that’d never appeared so dark before Chritus‘d cloaked it with his imagery. The Kärki penned piece finds a medium between his holy 80’s doom metal thunder with small drifts towards the 70’s heavy psych leanings he’s explored so heavily in the last half decade. That isn’t to say we’re getting full on ‘Sabotage’ worthy compositions but perhaps a heavier flick of the ‘Vol. 4’ wrist for color and shape. As much as I’m tempted to write another thousand words doing a track-by-track analysis the gist is that the highlights don’t stop, ‘The Black Powder’ is devoid of filler or inconsequential pieces. What strikes me more and more with each listen, even as someone who counts Lord Vicar as one of the best of all time, is how distinctly Lord Vicar they sound on this album; Though some of that feeling might come from the not-so-distant oddness of ‘Gates of Flesh’ and a deep worship of ‘Fear No Pain’, this latest record appears as a truly defining statement that fully taps into the strengths of each member involved.
The punkish jog of “The Temple in the Bedrock” and “Impact” do a lot of work to keep the 70 minute full listen from dragging at all and I’d say at no point did ‘The Black Powder’ feel like it was irresponsibly ambitious or belabored. Those 90’s Pentagram and The Lamp of Thoth-esque stomping uptempo kicks are a strength of Lord Vicar‘s that had kinda lost their steam on ‘Born of Osiris’ and I’m happy to get a few more here. Flawless as I see it, objectively speaking I do think a 17 minute opener will be daunting for more casually interested folks who’re pressed for time or attention span so the length of the album itself might cause some anxiety for passersby. My own bias certainly influences my score and appreciation of ‘The Black Powder’ and in context Reverend Bizarre‘s ‘II: Crush the Insects’, Terra Firma‘s ‘Harm’s Way’ and ‘Fear No Pain’ are among my favorites within their respective niches… So, to get some sort of tonal semblance of each all in one record is particularly special to me as a fan. Setting myself aside is easy enough, though, and ‘The Black Powder’still stands on its own meaty legs as a heavy and hard-rocked doom metal album with broad appeal between ‘old school’ doom’s gloomy strut and modern doom metal’s cathartic blanket of oppression. With a month of listening under my belt, and as a previously unsated fan, I am happy to consider ‘The Black Powder’ a modern day classic. Highest recommendation. For preview “Sulfur, Charcoal and Saltpeter” is a reasonable place to start as it is an essential piece of the full listen but shoot straight towards “The Temple in the Bedrock” too and towards the memorable combo of “Black Lines” and “Impact” as this was just one of several points on the record where I’d really been floored by on repeat listens.
All of them will hit the ground. 5.0/5.0
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