For those readers who aren’t also high fantasy nerds, the ‘Crom’ in Swedish/Finnish outfit Sons of Crom’s name refers to one of the Cimmerian deities in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age stories, particularly his Conan tales. The duo’s sophomore full-length The Black Tower has many of the same epic qualities as Howard’s famous writings, right down to being set in the same unforgiving Cimmerian landscapes. In the PR materials for the record, listeners are invited to “Join our hero on a perilous quest for the eternal truth beyond the shrouds of mortality, where time and space hold no ground and the misty veil between life and afterlife is a mere illusion. Sacrifice reason and ascend - enter the Black Tower.”
To be honest, I haven’t read that much Howard – I find his style to be a bit too dry – but I’ve read enough to know how much that description sounds like something he would have written. I’m also not all that up on the Conan lore, either, so I don’t know if the album’s narrative comes directly from Howards work or if it’s an original tale. All I can really do is comment on the record musically, and in that respect I enjoyed it overall, even if I found it to be something of a mixed bag.
A big part of what threw me at first about Sons of Crom is that they’re signed to Nordvis, but they do not sound like the usual Nordvis kind of band. When I think of that label, I think first and foremost of black metal, particularly of the epic and folk varieties. There are certainly some folk elements in Sons of Crom’s sound in terms of their melodies and occasional use of violin, and I’ve already mentioned their epic qualities, but The Black Tower is not a black metal album. It’s not exactly what I’d call power metal, either. The closest analogue would probably be Bathory’s Viking metal period crossed with one of the less obnoxious pagan metal bands, like old-school Moonsorrow, plus a bit of Celtic influence a la Primordial (Howard’s Cimmerians were a proto-Celtic people).
I’m probably not selling it very well, but there’s a lot going on musically on The Black Tower that I really like. For starters, most of the songs on the record are in the five-plus minute range, but there are enough memorable riffs and mood changes within each song that they remain engaging despite their generous lengths. The longest of those tracks, the nearly eight-and-a-half minute “In Fire Reborn,” feels like a series of movements rather than a collection of riffs, reminding me a bit of some of the more sweeping songs in Rhapsody of Fire’s discography. Guitarist Janne Posti’s leads are strong throughout the record as well, especially the shreddy break on “Black Wings on High.”
The only aspect of the record I’m not totally sold on are the vocals. Posti and drummer Irio Sarkki share clean vocal duties, and both have a fairly limited range that takes a bit of getting used to. At their most effective they kind of have a medieval minstrel feel to them, but I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that one of them had a more powerful voice. On “Fall of Pandemonium” in particular, the Maiden-esque riffing completely overwhelms the vocal line.
Still, complaining about vocals on an extreme metal record feels a bit gauche, and it’s not like there aren’t a lot of other things going right on the record to make up for them. However, for me those vocals are the difference between The Black Tower being a very good record and a great record. Fans of this particular type of music, though, might not find them as noticeable as I did. Either way, The Black Tower is a solid record that’s well worth a listen if you’re into epic heavy metal.
The Black Tower will be available on August 18 via Nordvis Produktion.