Candlemass, Psalms for the Dead: Dooming in the Temple of the Mad King Edling

Notable for it being the band’s 11th studio full-length and for marking their transition from Nuclear Blast, which released their last three LPs as well as a handful of live albums, EPs, singles and DVDs, to Napalm Records, Psalms for the Dead is most of all a landmark for reportedly being Candlemass’ last album. Of course, history teaches us to be skeptical when it comes to people who’ve played music all their lives suddenly deciding not to play music anymore – after all, Candlemass already called it quits before and came back with their 2005 self-titled six years later, and bassist, founder and principle songwriter Leif Edling has waffled on the idea already – but working on the assumption that they are in fact finished recording and releasing albums, Psalms for the Dead puts an appropriate stamp on this last era of the band. To ask it to summarize the whole almost 30 years Candlemass has been around would be unfair, but as the third collection featuring the vocals of Robert Lowe (also Solitude Aeturnus) behind 2007’s stellar King of the Grey Islands and 2009’s Death Magic Doom (review here), Psalms for the Dead at least rounds out Candlemass’ allegedly final run with more of the quality doom fans have come to expect from one of the genre’s most pivotal and influential acts. Edling, who’s been the driving force behind the band since they began as Nemesis in 1982, upholds his standard, and while Psalms for the Dead will never be regarded as the definitive Candlemass release – probably not even by this lineup, as memorable as the songs on King of the Grey Islands wound up being despite how rushed the album was – where it stands in line with the likes of all-time genre classics like 1986’s Epicus Doomicus Metallicus or 1988’s Ancient Dreams is irrelevant. It’s legitimately better than was Death Magic Doom and worthy of being the band’s final statement. That might be the highest compliment it could possibly earn.

As always, the music is majestic. Edling and guitarists Lars “Lasse” Johansson and Mats “Mappe” Björkman deliver classic metal riffs and solos with crisp professionalism, drummer Jan Lindh provides ample push whether to more upbeat material like opener “Prophet” or the slower, low-end heavy grooves of “Waterwitch,” and Lowe’s voice is clear and his delivery powerful. Lowe, who stepped into his role as Candlemass vocalist having already fronted one of the forebears of modern doom, has come to fit even more with Edling’s writing style. As he steps back to let Johansson lead the melody through an extended guitar solo section, the verse and chorus never seem to be completely gone, and that’s a credit to him as a vocalist for leaving an impression, but also to Edling as the writer and to Johansson’s performance. The whole band seems to be contributing throughout Psalms for the Dead, and the album is stronger for it. Getting underway with a  strong trio of tracks helps a lot, with “The Sound of Dying Demons” built around a solid chorus and what might be Lowe’s most impassioned delivery as Candlemass’ singer and “Dancing in the Temple (Of the Mad Queen Bee)” having a quirk factor to go with its organ-inclusive rush. Varying the pace well, the band nonetheless maintains a consistently bleak atmosphere, and “Dancing in the Temple (Of the Mad Queen Bee)” has an immediate hook from just how bizarre the title is, and that’s half the appeal. Some will doubtless think it’s silly – it is – and dismiss it on that level, but at 3:38, it’s the shortest cut on Psalms for the Dead, so it’s over quick, and its increase in tempo after the stomp of “The Sound of Dying Demons” works well placed as it is.

The organ adds a progressive feel, following Björkman’s riffing in classic fashion, and “Dancing in the Temple (Of the Mad Queen Bee)” works because it’s as musically stripped down as it is lyrically nonsensical. Candlemass follow it with “Waterwitch,” the only track on Psalms for the Dead to top seven minutes, and move into a slower march, upping the atmospherics while also keeping the doom foremost. “Waterwitch” moves the nine-track offering into its second, middle, third. The strong opening salvo has made a solid impression, and Candlemass really start to show the personality of Psalms for the Dead with the sound of “Waterwitch,” which isn’t really vibrant, but engages in its riffy largesse and via the drama in Lowe’s vocals. It’s hard to make “Waterwitch” sound crucial – the chorus is basically the title repeated – but he does as well with it as anyone could, and though the track is hardly a high point of the album, it doesn’t really hold it back, either, fading out to make way for “The Lights of Thebe”’s keyboard-introduced semi-Eastern chugging. Psalms for the Dead is structured for linearity, not easily broken into vinyl sides (unless you get into adding bonus tracks), and “The Lights of Thebe” is the centerpiece, proffering a steady Candlemass narrative that finds Edling working in his element musically and lyrically, playing epic ideas off likeminded riffing. Still, though one might think of it like their take on “Egypt (The Chains are On),” there’s not much to stand the song out from its surroundings in terms of impact to bolster it into the centerpiece position. However, if this is to be middling Candlemass after 30 years, then it’s still a pretty high level, and it pairs well with the title-track, which follows. Organ again features heavily, filling out the verse while the guitars take their time to reel back for the bridge and chorus, and Lowe rests well in the subdued lines, changing key as the music picks up and relaxes. The middle section features from of Psalms for the Dead’s best riffing, and sure enough, by the time “The Killing of the Sun” comes on, one does feel fully engrossed in the album.

Propelled by as straightforward a groove as Candlemass here offers, “The Killing of the Sun” is both unpretentious and melodically addictive. The final third of Psalms for the Dead plays out in order from shortest to longest, “The Killing of the Sun” at 4:10, “Siren Song” at 5:57 and “Black as Time” at 6:47, each track showing a distinct personality. “The Killing of the Sun” was probably filler. It’s in the filler spot, and its no-frills take makes it sound all the more like something the band needed at the last minute, but that doesn’t actually diminish the quality of the song itself. “Siren Song” is another organ-heavy track – that following the start-stop riff and not sounding foolish in the process – that also boasts some of Edling’s best bass work and a fantastic stomp from Lindh, and the closer can’t help but stand out. “Black as Time” begins with a long spoken intro. It sounds like Eric Idle with reverb on him – and I really, really want it to be Eric Idle, but I can’t conceive of a way it actually would be, unless the Monty Python member is a closet doom head – and goes on at length about time being the enemy, time killing you, time healing nothing (a little bit of Crowbar thrown in), and after about 90 seconds, time being black, which cues the music swell to kick in. The spoken word part lays it on a bit thick, but the song itself rushes to get to its chorus and it proves to be time well spent. It rocks, perhaps a bit ironically or since the band’s time is up, as it were, but still. Johansson tosses in one more killer solo, the spoken word returns to remind that time “is the master of doom” – not sure what that means, but okay – and then Lindh’s double-kick speeds the track to its finish.

Like Candlemass’ career and discography, Psalms for the Dead has its ups and downs. At times, like as “Black as Time” comes to a head, the band are firing on all proverbial cylinders, and in other places, the formula they’ve been working with for a long time now becomes more apparent. Still, Edling is in the top three, if not the top two, doom songwriters of all time, and if this is to be the last record he does with the band in which he made his name as such, no one could say he didn’t go out in top form. Candlemass have had an incredible journey these past decades – tumultuous, at times brilliant and at times fraught – and maybe Psalms for the Dead will prove the final entry in their discography, and maybe it won’t. Taking the album in its own context, it’s a collection of tracks rife with atmosphere that reaffirm why Candlemass have had the influence that they’ve had across the world and across more than a generation of doomly followers. “Black as Time” ends with a grandfather clock ticking out its finale and the album’s, and though it’s virtually impossible to separate that from the context of being the intended last thing ever to be on a Candlemass album, it’s all the more fitting as a reminder of our impermanence. If Candlemass ever had a message, it was that we’re all doomed.

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