STYGIAN CROWN – Stygian Crown (2020)REVIEW

Though it laid tightly set between Shem and the Black Kingdoms, Stygia was yet an intensely insular and barren nest of violence for seeming eons. Easily likened to Hell for its border by way of the river Styx and the monarchic rule spanning countless malevolent kingdoms, each becoming feared horrors in a time before legends; They’d defended Stygia by way of curse, unrepentant bloodshed, and ever-whirling black sorcery. From Pteion to Sukhmet the land reeked of Hades’ breath and unholy doom long before pre-human times. At least that’d be what I’d gather from Robert E. Howard‘s world building essays detailing his shared vision of a Hyborian Age, a history of a world embroiled in chaos beyond the sinking of Atlantis’ rule over Earth. What the fuck is this nerd talking about? Well, one of the prime inspirations for instilling some manner of dark sword and sorcery into many doom-adjacent heavy metal projects dating back to the mid-to-late 70’s (at least), including Los Angeles, California-based epic doom metal quintet Stygian Crown. Packing a mountain-sized set of performances into a nigh hour-long self-titled debut album after nearly a decade of conception, the first breath of fire from Stygian Crown upon the doom metal populace arrives well above standard fare to melt armor to hides and burn flesh from bone.

Though it’d be natural to assume this was a death metal band (in this case, Gravehill) trying their hand at a side-project that’d place the band’s conception far from the heart of where Stygian Crown were actually built from. In the back of Rhett Davis‘ (Morgion, ex-Crimson Relic) mind since roughly 2013, it wasn’t until he’d connected with Morbid Eclipse guitarist Andy Hicks that the songwriting for the project truly took shape and further down the road the essential addition of vocalist/keyboardist Melissa Pinon solidified the project to something real and named. Of course this isn’t Davis‘ first rodeo with a traditional heavy/doom metal sound having been a key member of Keen of the Crow in the late 2000’s, a Conan-themed death/doom metal band crossing harsh vocals with traditional doom notions. Still, Stygian Crown is yet something entirely different, as the surface-level impression of their sound will read as Candlemass-esque epic doom metal (Below, Procession, etc.) while deeper attention paid to the downtuned guitar craft yields something more akin to Bolt Thrower, describing the sound as “candlethrower” for the sake of getting the point across. This ends up being an alright way to express where the songwriting diverges from the usual phrasing built upon the general blueprint of ‘Nightfall’, the melodic guitar arrangements are key as is the death metal standard tuning. There is much more to ‘Stygian Crown’ as an experience beyond the guitars but I’d felt it best to emphasize that this is a ‘riff’ album in the realm of epic doom metal.

Stygian Crown‘s first demo (‘Through Divine Passing‘, 2018) was exacting in its conveyance of what this self-titled full-length would entail yet the keyboards/synthesizers used on the album take the slightly reworked versions of each of those three songs and elevate them. This is perhaps most noticeable on “Through Divine Rite”, the great shining piece on the EP and now the gloom-ridden centerpiece on ‘Stygian Crown’ thanks to the ramping of keyboard push as the album reaches its first dramatic apex. “Flametongue” follows naturally, and without this duo creating the crux of the full listen, I wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic about Side A. “Devour the Dead” is not a bad song it just isn’t as good as the six others that follow it. “Up From the Depths” is an album seller, a gigantic creeper of a hook leading the way, this is where the ‘Bolt Thrower guitar melody‘ comparison makes good sense, working itself out as if reinterpreted from a song on ‘Mercenary’. Deeper into Side B it becomes clear that they’ve written this album as an experience, the mark of the professional attuned to classic heavy metal records that aren’t naive at heart provides textural variance among songs worth repeating. A fine example would be “When Old Gods Die”, a piece framed by an ominous watery bassline, some kicks of speedier riffs, and several fiery solos at its peak — What might appear as a simple piece upon cursory listen acts to provide depth upon revisit. The best pieces are perhaps the most narrative and my favorite has to be the jogging Dio-esque “Trampled Unto the Earth” where some of the heavier guitar chunks emphasize just how gnarly the live wire guitar sound can get.

Impressive as all of this certainly is what holds back the initial impact of Stygian Crown‘s debut is its partially being marketed as a ‘death metal heavy’ epic doom metal album though it lands somewhere closer to the first Crypt Sermon album or Procession‘s ‘To Reap the Heavens Apart’. Fine company to be in all the same but listeners more recently keyed into bands like Concilium or Smoulder are going to be most excited about a record in this style. Beyond that somewhat trivial observation I think ‘Stygian Crown’ can’t avoid sounding like a first try, a concept that’d needed to lay its basal structures on a ‘first step’. I primarily say this because the vocal patternation doesn’t feel like a major part of the process just yet, where the songs themselves gain the appropriate narrator but (considering the range and level of expression available) don’t feel notched to fit big, theatrical vocal moments that could send Stygian Crown unto unforgettable territory. Philosophies and vision might not line up with my own need for ‘more guitars and more vocal layers, bigger melodies’ and I’d still be very happy with this record and any iteration of it in the future as an epic doom metal fan. It deserves nothing less than a moderately high recommendation to most, and a high recommendation for devout fans of this style.

Moderately high recommendation.

Rating: 8 out of 10.
ARTIST:Stygian Crown
TITLE:Stygian Crown
LABEL(S):Cruz Del Sur Music
RELEASE DATE:June 26th, 2020
BUY/LISTEN/STREAM:Bandcamp [All formats], Cruz Del Sur Store [All formats]
GENRES:Epic Doom Metal,
Heavy/Doom Metal

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