Maturity and professionalism not often achieved
Crimson Glory's excellent 1988 release, Transcendence, a peculiar record given the time period and the then current mystery that had already begun to circle the masked band after their eponymous debut from 1986, which is also a grievously underrated release in the annals of metal. I had the privilege of corresponding with founding guitarist Jon Drenning a couple of weeks ago to gain some further insight into this unique release.
The heavy metal of the 80's had blossomed into several distinct offshoots by the time Transcendence launched; true metal curators finding thrash now well established by the big four and digging deeper to find death and even the early stages of black metal begin to take shape, while others eagerly lapped up the sugar of the popped-out strains (read hair-metal) being spoon fed to them by MTV and other video outlets. In the midst of all this came the biggest shift in musical focus and popularity before Seattle flexed its flannelled muscle, that being, for lack of a better term, sleaze metal. You know the ilk, led by Guns n' Roses, bands like Skid Row, Badlands, Love/Hate and LA Guns took the hard rock sensibilities of 70s Aerosmith and BTO, heavied things up, and while keeping the simpler song structures of their poppier peers, eschewed the glam image, opting for a grittier look, this at least offering some crossover appeal to metal's more serious and heavy-minded bangers. As is often wont to happen, some groups step outside the confines of genre-defining borders and just make damn good albums that have a broader appeal, and in 1988 it was Queensryche's conceptual opus Operation: Mindcrime. But, another album from later that same year shamefully escaped the public eye, although being quite similar in style to Queensryche, and that was Crimson Glory's Transcendence.
Fronted by the highly enigmatic John McDonald, aka Midnight, who passed away earlier this year as a result of complications from excessive internal bleeding (R.I.P. 7/8/09), the band already had released a self-titled debut in 1986 to much acclaim in the underground, the guys reaching deep into their individual influences and combining them into a truly unique and memorable brand of metal, and while that album showed that the band's strengths were song-writing coupled with Midnight's otherworldly vocal presentation, the true culmination of their talents came with 1988's Transcendence.
Drop the needle onto the wax for the first time and you're treated to "Lady of Winter", a startling opener that sends chills down your spine upon first listen; a mid-paced, galloping riff segueing into the soaring chorus, Midnight immediately exemplifying his ability to hit the high note while relating this fantastical allegory. Next up is "Red Sharks", probably the fastest of the ten tracks. This time the chorus is a slow build, low to high in tone and intensity, Midnight and fellow alum decrying septic decrees sent forth by the despots of the world to their enslaved peoples. Following "Red Sharks" is my personal favorite from any of their releases, "Painted Skies"; hell, I almost always hit replay after hearing it, the highly emotive and lofty chorus touching a chord in the soul. The song to this day remains a fan favorite, and always reminds me of "The Lady Wore Black" from Queensryche; starting out with an introspective acoustic guitar, the affecting vocals relating the story of a woman persecuted as the epic ballad plays out. Track number four is "Masque of the Red Death", yes, about the very story written by Edgar A. Poe, and its vicious riffing recalls Jake E Lee stylings via Bark at the Moon. Following is another personal favorite, "In Dark Places" launching slow and gloomy, the main riff trundling along, and its beat cut short every other measure adding to the dejection, the lyrics perfectly complementing the malaise.
In fact, when I asked Jon what his favorite track from Transcendence was he had this to say:
"My favorite would have to be "In Dark Places," although there were members of the band who weren't too keen on it at first...they grew to love it though, and it's one of our better songs in my opinion. Midnight loved it too, but his favorite would probably have been "Painted Skies," which started as a simple piano ballad, and grew into the epic version you hear today. It's another of our better songs, I think".
Here too is my favorite lead by Jon, a slinky, sinuous, and slow burn that perfectly conveys the overall feeling of the track; take note aspiring musicians, this is Songwriting 101! The haunting outro fades off leading the listener into the fantasy-themed track, "Where Dragons Rule"; a cool phase-shifting tone lightly placed upon the guitars' main riff lending itself to the otherworldly motif. "Lonely" is next, its lyrical content and delicate opening recalling "Painted Skies" from four songs back, but this time things take a decidedly quick left turn into heaviness, a chunky start/stop riff connected by Jeff Lords' varied and killing bass lines which continue right up through to the chorus. Moving on, "Burning Bridges", is probably the most progressive to be found on the record. Keyboard flourishes added to the dark chord progressions which go through a number of movements to create an ethereal atmosphere to the song, and the guitars, choosing to harmonize with the vocals in the spiraling descent of the chorus, add to the effect. The second to last track is "Eternal World", and it's the one song I always felt to be the weakest link of the album. Why, I don't know, in fact, the solo section is the fastest thing done by the band so far, but in its entirety it feels haphazard, a bit thrown together, and by far it's the least memorable.
Curious, I inquired of Jon about the writing sessions for this album and whether any of the material was left over from the first outing or the ideas were started afresh. His response: "They were all fresh. "Eternal World" was written as an instrumental for the tour of our first record in Holland, but other than that, everything was new". This may be the answer as to why the song has always felt a bit out of place to me. Regardless, we find the title track closing out the album, and it's very similar to that of "Lost Reflection", the final song from their first release: quiet, haunting, introspective, the rhythm guitar freely oscillating with a bit of electric effects thrown in, the thrust of the song designed for Midnight and his vocalizations to bleed from the speakers and into your being, easing the threat of death and its blade; a portent and fitting end to the previous fifty minutes of sonic bliss.
Certainly, many go into their sophomore effort with the intent of outshining their debut, yet fall flat. In Crimson Glory's case though, its immediately perceptible the painstaking care which they used to contrive each tune, for the entire album reeks of a maturity and professionalism not often achieved.
Lift the needle, put the album back in its sleeve, and pause for a moment to study the back of the jacket before carefully sliding it back atop the record shelf. You'll find a final arcane and equivocal piece of the puzzle that made up Crimson Glory. As to its perplexing purpose, Jon expounds: "I wanted to use the symbolism and cryptology to send a message to those fans who had the vision and the motivation to understand it. Along with the masks, it added to the mystery around the band. We wanted to create something that would last a lifetime and beyond, and it has. When we're gone, that message will still be alive, someone will be reading it". What does it say you ask? Well, when deciphered, it reads as follows: We will strike down the ones who lead us, we are your future, we are forever. Somewhat prescient, foreboding, and all at once haunting, but, that's always been Crimson Glory's modus operandi, and a fitting requiem to a lost classic.