Kings Destroy, Fantasma Nera: Where You’ll Find Yourself

Kings Destroy Fantasma Nera

The usual disclaimer: I won’t pretend to be impartial about a new Kings Destroy release. I’ve followed with great intrigue the process by which the New York five-piece have made Fantasma Nera, from the composition of the songs to working with producer David Bottrill — who has helmed records for Tool, King Crimson, and many, many others — to their aligning with Svart Records for the release with an eye toward touring around it, right up to attending the release show at the Saint Vitus Bar last weekend (review here). I’m not bragging, like I’m Johnny Groundfloor or something; I’m telling you this because in addition to being a fan of their work — something that should already do away with any false-anyway notion of impartiality when it comes to critique — I consider these guys friends and I can’t and won’t pretend otherwise for the purposes of an album review. If that somehow for you invalidates whatever I say about Fantasma Nera or the band in general, then fine. Tune back in Monday for plenty more overly wordy stoicism. Or don’t. Up to you.

At 10 tracks and 43 minutes, Fantasma Nera is the most accomplished album Kings Destroy have put out in the decade they’ve been together. Their fourth behind a 2015 self-titled (review here) and 2017’s single-song None More EP (review here), it redefines their scope as a band entirely, with a greater focus on melody and a nothing-spare efficiency of songcraft that enhances rather than detracts from the impact of moments like the apex to “Seven Billion Drones” or the swinging chug and hook of “Yonkers Ceiling Collapse,” the winding beginning of opener “The Nightbird” or the angular turns of the penultimate “Bleed Down the Sun.”

Tonally, it’s the smoothest-sounding Kings Destroy have ever been, as Carl Porcaro and Chris Skowronski suit their sound to a more rocking feel overall that sets well in the rush of “Barbarossa” early in the record or the more foreboding riffing of “You’re the Puppet” later on, and even in the presentation of the underlying groove of bassist Aaron Bumpus and drummer Rob Sefcik (also of Begotten), the shift is palpable, puling away from some of the outward confrontationalist attack that seemed most to define their second outing, 2013’s A Time of Hunting (review here), and instead metering the in-your-facery in a way they never have before. I do not imagine that getting a bunch of dudes whose roots are in New York hardcore on board with the idea that not everything needs to be played as hard as possible at all times was an easy task, but the truth is Kings Destroy laid the foundation for this kind of work their last time out, even if the actual result is a considerable leap forward.

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Perhaps most of all, it’s a collection of songs by a band putting everything on the line. As vocalist Steve Murphy successfully brings in falsetto on “Unmake It,” or is joined by a gang chorus on “The Nightbird” — a theme that continues directly from self-titled closer “Time for War” — or pushes into new levels of melodic complexity that seem drawn from YOB‘s “Marrow” in melancholy album highlight “Dead Before,” which is brilliantly paired with the bouncing riff of “Yonkers Ceiling Collapse” right after, there’s a sense that Kings Destroy, all five of them, are leaving it all out there. Closer “Stormy Times,” in which Skowronski and Porcaro come together in a final stretch of harmonized soloing to end the record, seems to be a moment of exhalation, and it ends with notes held out to fading feedback as though at the end of it the band could finally breathe. Though Fantasma Nera is unquestionably their most “rock” album in the sheer listening process, it carries a sense of extremity nonetheless in how much of themselves they put into making it.

And I haven’t said this to anyone in the band yet, but my principle concern in listening to these tracks is that Fantasma Nera might be the last Kings Destroy record. That after putting everything into this, there might not be anything left. I don’t know that, of course, and I don’t think at this point they would either, but Kings Destroy aren’t just making a sonic turn with this material — they’re providing a culmination of what their prior offerings were driving toward. In a way, Fantasma Nera defines them more than did the self-titled. What do you do after that? Where do you go from there?

Hell if I know.

They’re questions that don’t need immediate answering, but the thought lingers in the back of my head even while the title-track and “Barbarossa” proffer hooks in a salvo with the opener that help define the spirit of what follows, and even as the second half of the record takes on more of a commentary component between “Yonkers Ceiling Collapse,” “Seven Billion Drones,” “You’re the Puppet” and “Stormy Times” — hell, even “Bleed Down the Sun” could be read that way, if you take the imagery as metaphor — it retains the urgency of expression of “Fantasma Nera” itself or “Dead Before,” which in its verses is the most subdued Kings Destroy get here, but is nonetheless vital in its melody and emotionalism.

If Fantasma Nera were to be the last Kings Destroy record — and I’m not saying it is, or that it should be; I’m just working in a hypothetical; they’ll probably put out another album in a couple years and blow this one out of the water — then they’re not leaving anything in reserve. There’s no holding back in these songs. It’s all laid bare for the listener to take in, as though the band reeled back and unleashed the material they’ve been aiming for all this time. My hope is that it’s not the last one, but whether it is or not, there’s no doubt after “Stormy Times” works its way out that they’ve pushed themselves to what at least for right now is their limit in terms of craft and performance. It is a new peak for them, and a triumph begging to be heard.

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