The Wounded Kings began their career in 2004. They ended it in 2016. By the time they got around to releasing their first album, 2008’s Embrace of the Narrow House, their lineup consisted of guitarist Steve Mills and vocalist George Birch. The UK outfit’s fifth and last long-player, Visions in Bone (released by Candlelight/Spinefarm), was recorded in part by Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studio and also features those two founders, but to call the route they took to get to that point circuitous would probably be underselling it. They’d appear together again on 2010’s The Shadow over Atlantis (review here), but by the time the band got around to releasing their split with Cough, An Introduction to the Black Arts (review here), that same year, the lineup had begun to shift from a duo to a four-piece, and the changes would continue for the next half-decade-plus.
By the time 2011’s In the Chapel of the Black Hand (review here) arrived, Birch was out and Mills had already revamped the rhythm section, as he’d continue to do for the next several years. Vocalist Sharie Neyland took the reins and worked fluidly enough with the band’s cultish themes that 2014’s Consolamentum (review here) found them swapping labels from I Hate to Candlelight, taking advantage of wider distribution despite continued lineup shifts. They were a double-guitar five-piece at that point, but Visions in Bone brings their number back down to four, with Mills and Birch joined by drummer Mike Heath (on board since 2011) and bassist Alex Kearney (who also joined in 2011, but on guitar).
In some ways, it feels like a miracle The Wounded Kings pushed ahead as long as they did, and I’d call it a miracle but for all of the obvious hard human effort put into their songwriting and presentation, which have always provided stability despite whatever tumult surrounded. The Wounded Kings never had a “down” album. Well, unless you count in mood, in which case they’re all pretty “down,” but whoever happened to be in the band at any given time, they never failed to deliver quality output and as they wrap their tenure after a respectable 12-year run with these five tracks, they remain a forward-thinking, progressive outfit working in defiance of expectation for what one might commonly think of as “traditional doom,” turning convention on its head with a sound it nonetheless seems fair to think of as classic in its roots.
Birch‘s vibrato makes itself welcome almost immediately as he takes command of 14-minute opener and longest track (immediate points) “Beast,” and while his reunion with Mills — whose guitar, as ever, conjures the kind of darkened swirl that worshipers of Electric Wizard would envy if they knew what was good for them — is a bit part of the narrative of Visions in Bone, as is the ending of the band, neither should be considered without due thought to the level of execution across the album’s 48 minutes, “Beast” webbing its way into a creeper solo section around the halfway mark and building to a Candlemass-worthy crescendo before Birch returns and a final slowdown brings on “Vultures.”
Visions in Bone‘s structure is such that it works from longest to shortest in terms of track runtimes, but on two different wavelengths. Three longer tracks — “Beast” (14:03), “Kingdom” (11:14) and “Vanishing Sea” (10:12) — appear as the opener, centerpiece and closer, while two shorter ones — “Vultures” (8:40) and “Bleeding Sky” (4:21) — split them. Probably still fair to call “Vultures” extended, but particularly coming right after “Beast,” it feels like a marked shift in approach, is speedier and more raucous in its crash early on and the hypnotic wash of bleak psychedelia in its second half, to which Birch adds far-back chants even as Mills‘ last solo rounds out, bringing on the big-rock opening of “Kingdom,” soon giving way to a more swinging doom boogie that the band have rarely embraced.
It swings in the first half, but the song essentially breaks in two, a long sample setting up the foundation for another dark-psych build to start, but Heath‘s drums signal a change and a slower rumble begins as the vocals return and the band rides out the slower groove for the remaining two minutes, fading on feedback as the penultimate “Bleeding Sky” takes hold with a simple hi-hat march soon joined by guitar, bass and vocals.
One might expect “Bleeding Sky” to be more straightforward with its relatively abbreviated runtime, and that’s more or less how it works out, though The Wounded Kings never really depart from the dreary lurching mood regardless of tempo or structure. They end with “Vanishing Sea,” which announces the arrival of its first verse with a quick sample and a righteous roll, Birch once more obscure in the mix but unmistakably present. Layers of guitar surround, the bass and drums provide effective anchor and movement, and the band once more follow the construction of breaking around halfway through to set up a larger build, this time going deeper and closer to absolute silence before working their way back to that pivotal explosive moment of resurgence.
The last two-plus minutes of Visions in Bone are dedicated to an instrumental apex of multi-tiered soloing, rolling crash and rumbling low end. It’s as fitting an end to The Wounded Kings‘ swansong — if it is (never say never in rock and roll) — as anything one might script, since it underlines just how much they went from “project” to “band” during their time together and what a force they ultimately were by the end. In a crowded UK market for doom and other forms of underground heavy, The Wounded Kings never failed to distinguish themselves in their atmospherics, their tone and their craftsmanship, and it’s easy to imagine their records will continue to be discovered for years to come.
As a final edition to their catalog, Visions in Bone answers their earlier work in summarizing some of what’s always been best in their sound, but even more appropriately, it represents the band’s ethic never ceasing to progress from one release to another. 12 years seems like too few.