Saturday, August 13, 2011

Draconian - A Rose for the Apocalypse

A scary thing on a throne of skulls
Though it unmistakably has its roots in the more droning riffs Brummie factory survivors Black Sabbath used to evoke the social crisis of the early 1970s, doom metal generally records the alienation of post-industrial landscapes. However, it has almost always done this in an unspoken way - focusing on the symptoms of this (most especially social alienation) rather than diagnosing the illness.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that this approach has run its course. From its peak in the early to mid 1990s, the lyrical themes have become ever more repetitive, and the musical composition has become generic, formulaic, stale. In this, doom metal is far from alone - a similar fate has befallen all artistic genres - but it has been painfully obvious within doom. Perhaps there is nowhere to go beyond the depths of individual despair.

The career of Sweden's Draconian broadly fits into this trend. Though they formed in 1994, it took them nine years to record a full studio album. Generally, their output has been on the more 'gothic' side of doom, which means lots of tragic love affairs and broken hearts. Though this produced some very creditable results on 2003's Where Lovers Mourn and follow-up Arcane Rain Fell, 2006's The Burning Halo was patchy at best. Two years later, Turning Season Within was the sound of a band treading water, and recycling every cliche in an apparent effort to just produce something...anything.

This makes their resurgence all the more remarkable. With A Rose for the Apocalypse, Draconian have stunned me, and made my favourite metal album so far this year (not counting my own band's Dead Romantic of course). Have they succeeded in showing how doom can be relevant again? While previous albums might have mused on the agonising death of a lover, this one explicitly reflects on the agonising death of a civilisation. This opens a whole new Pandora's box of possibilities for musical composition, and of course, as they live in such a dying civilisation, the musicians are likely to be 'feeling it' so much more.

They're still hanging out in forests, but Draconian's concerns now sound more 'street'
To be sure, much of the death and destruction is environmental, and this is a subject that doom has touched on in the past, though maybe never as unrelentingly as here. The very first verse of the very first song - The Drowning Age makes this motif clear: "In the dark; inside the earth/Blood runs barren now/See this age, so discoloured/It's breaking down somehow". If there is hope, it seems, we must "bring our gods to the gallows", whatever is meant by that. Setting the blueprint for the album, the track contains simple but extremely effective doom riffs, plus the newly exquisite combination of Anders Jacobsson's croaky growl and Lisa Johansson's ethereal, floaty singing. While 'beauty and the beast' has been done to...well...death over the years - and Draconian have been more guilty of forcing this than many - it seems so real and honest on this release.

Perhaps even more effective than the sense that humanity is living out of harmony with the rest of creation is the notion that we are living out of harmony with ourselves. On A Rose for the Apocalypse, this motif is more thoroughly explored than any doom album I can remember. Doom lyricists are particularly prone to getting bogged down in ostentatious symbolism, but Jacobsson clearly now feels the need to spell things out in far less uncertain terms. For example, on End Of The Rope - a very un-Draconian title - he affirms that individual behaviour is a product of larger societal processes. Yes really. Also, "As tyranny becomes normality/We hang at the end of the rope". At last, Jacobsson has linked draconian socio-political structures with the band's name.

The standout track is The Quiet Storm, which beautifully evokes a sense of communion in suffering and misery in this crisis-torn world. "We stumble through life/Shedding the same tears/Forming the same stream/Asking the same questions/Dreading the new day", Johansson breathes, in a truly unsettling manner. "Yes, a storm is certainly coming...feel the surge!/Rapidly we reach for clenched hands to save us/", Jacobsson snarls, "And we see ourselves for the first time/As the ones we truly are". It's powerful stuff, and its power is amplified by a haunting musical ambience, which subtly mirrors and then lifts the vocals, rather than trying to overwhelm or war with them.

A significant minority of reviewers and commenters have suggested that Draconian offer them nothing new on A Rose for the Apocalypse. In my opinion, this is a shallow analysis, which is either due to only hearing it a couple of times, or not considering the content enough. While they still sound like Draconian, they sound like a revitalised Draconian, who have something different to say. In time, the seismic changes in our society will produce radical departures in all forms of art, and it's quite likely doom metal itself will cease to exist. For now, against a background of musical complacency from the veterans, a great doom metal album is a huge step forward.
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