Cromlech emerged in 2013 from the northerly climes of Canada, but they are Mediterranean in spirit. They belong to the tradition of Italian and Greek acts such as Doomsword and Battleroar, boasting a barbaric, ultra-raw take on epic heavy metal with a sound which, though it may be realised with electric instruments, seems as though it belongs in an antediluvian time. Any epic metal album released in 2013 is doomed to face comparisons to Atlantean Kodex’s The White Goddess, but it’s a comparison Cromlech emerge from intact. Atlantean Kodex sang to the honour of ancient, primordial civilisations in their opulent compositions, but Cromlech’s music has no place in civilisation of any kind. This is music that suggests warriors wandering through bleak and barren landscapes, scratching a harsh and violent living from the land and calling home wherever they lay their heads. There’s no slick recording technology insulating listeners from the coarse guitar tone which makes every note cut like a serrated edge, or the flat, concussive drum sound which makes every stroke of the bass drum land like a fist impacting flesh.
It’s a sound that takes some time to adjust to – Cromlech are, at heart, a melodic metal band, but one comprised almost entirely of sharp edges, and it can take a few songs to recalibrate one’s expectations accordingly. Their spiky, brusque primitivism is initially uncomfortable on the ears; slow, churning sequences of heavy chords suddenly erupt into squealing leads shredding feverishly away at three notes; the clanking, skeletal bass roils away beneath the surface with what frequently feels like a loose rhythmic relationship to the guitars. It doesn’t help that the best tracks on this 70-minute record are backloaded. The title track that opens the album is a 5-minute instrumental and about twice as long as it really has to be as an intro. “For a Red Dawn” finds the band get into their groove with the introduction of Kevin Loghnane’s sonorous vocals broken up by long, winding instrumental sections. This is followed, however, by the rather awkward and gangly “Honor”, the album’s first and worst flirtation with fast tempos, Loghnane barking “hail-hail-hail-hail-hail!” in a way that makes it sound like he’s struggling to keep up and is difficult to take seriously.
Ave Mortis finds its footing properly at the halfway point with a pair of eleven-minute epics, where finally I found myself starting to align with the band’s wavelength – the second of the two in particular, the relentlessly heavy “Of the Eagle and the Trident”. Cromlech’s second go at fast tempos, it coalesces much more successfully than “Honor” with crushingly heavy rhythms that synchronise beautifully with swooping leads and operatic vocal work. I thought I was ready for a breather after it was over, but then “Lend me your Steel” arrives like a pillaging horde of visigoths. Were it not for the melodious vocal work, this track would be full-blown thrash metal, and fairly vicious thrash at that — the sort you wouldn’t be surprised to find on an album by Sodom or Morbid Saint. It’s the album’s shortest track at less than five minutes, but it serves as a welcome shot of adrenaline among the more expansive compositions. My favourite track, though, would have to be the instrumental “Among the Tombs”; a savoury concoction of slow, crushing chords with elaborate guitar work liberally layered over the top, building an atmosphere of massive, epochal portent that had the epic doom fan in me salivating.
Cromlech’s sound is one that will appeal to a fairly specific type of heavy metal fan, the sort who can’t get enough of what acts like Doomsword, Battleroar or Argus have to offer – those whom prefer the smoother, sleeker model of Iron Maiden and their descendants would probably do well to steer clear. Within those certain parameters however, this is a highly accomplished and promising debut outing. While Cromlech err towards long-windedness a little more than I’d like, the potency of their brand of primitivism is hard to deny once they get up a head of steam – heavy, primal, and immersive, with crescendos like mountains falling into the sea. It’s not a style that is broadly practised, so finding it done this well is always a treat.
01) Ave Mortis
02) For a Red Dawn
04) To see them Driven Before you
05) Of the Eagle and the Trident
06) Lend Me Your Steel
07) Amongst the Tombs
08) Shadow and Flame