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CD Review: CANDLEMASS Psalms for the Dead

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The PR cycle for Psalms of the Dead comes front loaded with some unfortunate news: after five years of fronting Candlemass, singer Robert Lowe has either been fired or split of his own volition (apparently there was a rift over his not being up to snuff on his live performances). I never got to see the band live, despite Lowe being from my home state of Texas, but on record I found Lowe to be a natural fit, his bluesier yet still epic voice affording the rest of the group a chance to expand their musical palette a bit.

But heartbreak is woven into the fabric of heavy metal, and so here we are: Mats Leven is the new (temporary) front man, but Psalms of the Dead is intended to be the last Candlemass studio album anyway, so Leven will basically just be filling in for live dates. Leif Edling has gone to great lengths to assure fans that the band are not actually breaking up… presumably they'll just be touring on the back of their existing catalog as long as fans are willing to pony up for tickets.

Bah. I understand that recording is still expensive, and that it may not be all that profitable in an era where fewer people are actually buying albums, but as a fan I'm a little troubled by this increasing trend toward established bands cooling their heels and just cycling through the hits over and over on every tour. I understand it, but I'll never endorse it. At the very least it seems like a sort of sad admission that a band's heyday is past.

That's just my opinion, though, and ultimately it has little bearing on the quality of this new album. In short: while carrying on in much the same vein as King of the Grey Islands and Death Magic Doom – the two previous Lowe-fronted albums – Psalms of the Dead is the weakest of the trilogy. Not by a large margin; it's still a fine album. It's just that at this point it's all starting to become a bit too familiar, as if the band is mostly just spinning their wheels, sheer talent alone carrying the day for the most part.

Take the opening riff of "Waterwitch", which is strikingly similar to the one that begins Sabbath's "Electric Funeral". I'm not claiming out and out plagiarism, but the similarities are perhaps symptomatic of Candlemass running low on original ideas. Actually, the riffs are frankly pretty stale throughout on this album; it's ironically the catchy melodic aspect of Lowe's vocals that make songs like the title track and "The Sound of Dying Demons" compelling to begin with.

There are a couple of songs early in the track order – "Prophet" and "Dancing in the Temple (Of the Mad Queen Bee)" – where the band take a strange turn into power metal territory. I'm all for a band experimenting with their sound, and there are still inherent doom elements underpinning both songs, but frankly neither song really plays to the band's strengths (especially Lowe's singing), both essentially coming off as junior Savatage clones. "Prophet" fares a little better than "Dancing in the Temple", but it's precisely because it has the greatest proportion of doom influences.

Points also lost for the pretentious spoken word mumbo jumbo that begins album closer "Black As Time". Yeah yeah, time is not your friend. We know already. With all due respect to the handful of bands that write intelligent, probing lyrics, most metal bands have a worrisome penchant for tackling weighty subjects with the most conventional, boilerplate opinions imaginable, which can be somewhat teeth grating when the listener is forced to regard it as a monologue with no musical accompaniment.

So is this how it ends? If this does indeed turn out to be the last Candlemass album it's hardly a dud, but neither is it the career ending capstone the band were probably shooting for. Retirements are a dime a dozen in the music industry, however, so time will tell if we ever seen Leif Edling and co. in the studio again, not to mention who happens to be singing for the band on future tours… fans are already clamoring for a reconciliation with Marcolin, but didn't we just do that a few years ago? Personally I would almost rather see them break in another new guy, but limiting yourself to live shows means you're also limiting yourself to singers that can convincingly belt out the hits.

At least Solitude Aeternus will be around if you still need your Robert Lowe fix.

Psalms for the Dead is out June 8 on Napalm.

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