The world suffers violence, and the violent shall take it by force.” Broken and distorted soundbites of cult leader Jim Jones giving his final, suicide-enticing sermon mesh with growls and brazen, angry guitars to open Wolves Among the Ashes. But Jones’s horrid words lose their original lunatic ardor here. Instead, they become vessels of poisonous derision for the French blackened death metal outfit Svart Crown on their fifth full-length, while the music wraps around this and similar ideas of subservience, foolishness, and madness. A caricature of and opposition to the tyranny of cult leaders born of the same cloth but with much larger flocks than the Peoples Temple.
While Svart Crown have never shied away from ambitious concepts, Wolves Among the Ashes presents, for better or worse, the most direct sublimation of extramusical ideas in their style. Initially, the music is as demented as the psychological and sociological madness they choose to explore. Take “Thermageddon,” for example, a compact and menacing cut that recalls the best moments of the band’s previous records, namely 2013’s majestic Profane, the crown jewel among them. Minor chords howl trapped in a tornado and conjure a sonic sort of chaos that twirls and progresses and struggles. Then, a sudden gear shift: Clément Flandrois and JB Le Bail appear to become possessed by Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King’s spirits for the briefest of moments as they launch into screeching, dissonant leads and solos. These float over a sea of murmuring tremolos reminiscent of Nile’s down-tuned death metal guitars. It’s a beautifully vile cut, worthy of its name, and one of the highlights of the album.
Soon after, and similar to their 2017 LP Abreaction, things relent and turn to the speculative, preferring ambient progressions and dissolutions to ruthless barrages. On “Art of Obedience,” we hear a groovy and curiously settled Svart Crown play a technical style that, perhaps new for them, sounds all too familiar, with shushed and whispered clean vocal lines layered over intricate, booming riffs. “Blessed Be the Fool,” with its slithering crawl and eerie chants, could be considered a theme song for some future remake of The Omen, while “Down to Nowhere” is as close to a doom ballad as Svart Crown have ever come. ”Wouldst thou like to live deliciously,” they ask, reframing Robert Eggers’s The Witch. But as the final notes of these cuts fade out, you begin to yearn for the incessant attacks and unforgiving choke hold of their earlier releases.
If both the contorting fits of aggression on the black metal scorcher “At the Altar of Beauty” and the ascending hymnal movements of “Exoria” show glimpses of the other, older Svart Crown, the slow, post-rockish, and faintly NOLA sounding “Living with the Enemy” closes the album with a whimper. Expanding and contracting through growls and huge riffs, it invokes a ritualistic and decidedly spiritual atmosphere, but one that feels morosely empty and never quite earns the final explosion. Stepping back and taking a look at the bigger picture, Wolves Among the Ashes sounds a bit like a failed style-crossing experiment. And in this attempt, Svart Crown don’t quite sound like themselves, but like a fractured entity that is now in the second decade of existence, yet still on a search for its true soul.
Perhaps all of this is unsurprising given how the past three years since the release of Abreaction have been difficult for Svart Crown and its mastermind JB Le Bail. The lineup has once again been completely revamped. JB Le Bail, the only constant member, is joined by returning Profane guitarist Clément Flandrois and drummer Nicolas Muller along with newcomer bassist Julien Negro. While their individual performances are solid—even in light of the occasionally questionable use of clean vocals—the feeling of a cohesive group is sorely missing. And despite the promise found in certain passages and ideas on Wolves Among the Ashes, its totality is nothing more than a solid record, the most damning of faint praises, and far below the heights Svart Crown is capable of reaching.