When it comes to metal, you have the usual rung of classics, and then you have the albums that are epochal in nature. The works that, regardless of whether you enjoy them or not, are the ones that fundamentally altered the landscape of the genre and for everything after them, for better or worse. Candlemass’s debut is, naturally, one of these albums – an album so blatantly influential that it spawned the subgenre in its own title. Calling an album of yours “Epicus Doomicus Metallicus” requires a hefty dose of confidence, certainly – it’s painfully easy to imagine an album that, in lesser hands, would’ve been essentially slowed down & shitty power metal; painfully sterile, rigidly formulaic, and reliant on melodic flash and forced hooks to paper over shitty riffs. It’s easy to say and dress yourself up as something; it’s something else entirely to be that thing, and to put up with all of the attendant shit that comes with it.
But Candlemass, say whatever else you would about them, emphatically are not an ordinary band. Their type of inspiration is a once in a lifetime type. Their approach exalts Black Sabbath, as any worthwhile doom metal band does – chiefly among others, the s/t song – and blows it up to cinematic proportions in structure and scope; the most low-slung and leaden riffage becomes “purified” in the sense that the genre’s last vestigial psychedelic rock roots (as espoused by Sabbath, Saint Vitus, and Trouble among others) are excised in favor of pure, physical weight and melody conveyed within them. The lead guitar, likewise, pivots from being fundamentally blues based and goes into a more quasi-neoclassical direction*, while the able-bodied vocals of one Johan Langqvist head into far more operatic realms than what doom metal had previously been doing, for the most part. There are obvious, bits and pieces of past groups here, as is the case even with pioneering bands – but Candlemass’s rendition of the form is such a blatantly pure, vivid and forceful vision of what direction the genre could go in that it leaves absolutely no doubt about which group where the ones who it all together for this album. None.
And leaving aside the obvious fact that it was profoundly influential on later metal – its own subgenre name aside, it was also deeply instructional upon groups such as the entire Peacevillian death/doom brood; Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride has said as much, among others – Epicus… is a resounding triumph from start to finish. The sense of sorrow, agony, impending demise and the dread that comes with it – the abstract linchpins that separate doom metal as its own thing from anything else, even beyond a specific riffing style, tempo or vocal use – are deeply felt constantly, even with a relatively varied set of tempos the band play around with throughout. The grandiose nature of the band’s formal style go hand in hand with their themes: Candlemass lay them right the hell out, and while they are certainly songwriters with a defter touch than given credit for, they also belie it with the sheer boldness of their approach. You don’t have to go any farther than the opening chords of “Solitude” and realize that it’s a song about suicide and a wasted life: it implicitly lays it out even before Langqvist comes in, like the powerhouse vocalist he was and underscores its emotional core. They are clever songwriters, but fundamentally also ones who make their intentions obvious in such a way that they force you onto their wavelength. You either “get this” or you’re gonna have a real hard time, and they ain’t polite enough to give a flying fuck.
As it should be.
So yeah, “Solitude” is their definitive hymn for a reason: it lays out on full display everything that makes Candlemass a great band. From its sorrowful opening chords and keening synthesizer to the way it builds up into its main riff – a dirge-y, low-slung riff that conveys instant sorrow and pure, physical crushing force and it does all those things effortlessly. And everything in the song is built directly around that riff or in response to it, with everything leading back to it or into the temporary reprise of the intro. Candlemass’s song structuring is verse/chorus, and yet at no point does the songwriting every feel formulaic or stuffy; the band’s instincts for arrangement allows all of these songs to have a sense of identity and direction; an internalized sense of variety that allows them to fit together mood-wise while each being individually discernible as its own song on its own. “Solitude” indeed showcases this, as much as anything else – aside for its main riff, the way the bridge slides back into a temporary reprise of the intro melody, only to come out with a stomping basher of a riff that sets up the guitar solo, is one of the most thrilling moments in an album stuffed to the gills with them.
Candlemass are, like basically any doom band worth their salt, masters of knowing how to escalate the tension and when to release it; these are songs with some of the most well-defined peaks & valleys in metal, period. “Demons Gate” is a brilliant example of it – a synthesized intro via throbbing bass drone and distorted vocal would be painfully corny in the hands of most other bands; Candlemass’s implementation of it is distinctly ominous and brooding, akin to stumbling on something you were never meant to see – and then the drums stride in, framing the first riff before revealing the actual main one of the song about 1:10. Pure, dark cast majesty that towers over the landscape like a spire in the bowels of Hades itself. And the harmonized riff that appears between the verses is some of the most vividly evocative stuff out there. It is brash and bold, but also undeniably clever and strong where it counts: namely, its riffs are excellent, and within the confines of its formal structure, the band always find ways to go somewhere with these songs and take ‘em places. They don’t just blandly cycle through and repeat passages over and over again – rather, the band understands the value of getting the necessary milage out of a particular passage, and then throwing in an overt changeup (the bass break Leif Edling lays down in “Crystal Ball” is a brilliant example of it) or a subtle variation on a previous passage while still having a strong set of themes to return to when necessary.
That the band is clever enough to delay the time as to when the actual main riff & theme of a song appears, on this album anyway, is very much to their benefit. It introduces a sort of tension that keeps you on your toes before it finally appears, as a mini climax while simultaneously being something the rest of the song is built around. “Black Stone Wielder” has this wicked opening passage that sounds almost like a lurching gallop; guitars, drums and bass all just colliding and into each in a sort of slow charge right before a tritone breaks it up, cranks up the tension before the main riff finally appears. And it is surely worth it when it does – it is one of the band’s best, a lurching, topsy turvy figure that comes in and smashes everything in the path, alternated with another brilliantly churning bludgeoner that never cranks the band’s sense of implacable heaviness down. And not for nothing, the middle section and the climatic solo is the go-to example of how to escalate tension and release it while still being rather sly about it. (the solo is, incidentally, the finest one of the entire record – Klaus Bergwall didn’t last for the Candlemass records after this, which is a shame; he absolutely kills it with his evocative phrasing and expressionistic playing style that just fits the rhythm parts perfectly. You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate performance for a lead guitarist to give)
The other example of that might be the single strongest cut on here, even moreso than “Solitude” in “A Sorcerers’ Pledge”. A tale of doom about a figure reawaking and destroying the world, it goes through three pretty distinct modes that all melt together super well in context – the keening, lonely sting of the opening synth gives it a vaguely sea-sick quality while Langqvist and the acoustic guitars pick up the weight of the song, give it its sense of oncoming gloom. “A thousand years of midnight, the sunrise is gooooooooooone”, and then it eventually gives way into the main theme of the song, an effortlessly badless, earthen riff that absolutely slays everything in its path. One of the coolest things about this song is that it alternates it with a verse riff that sounds like a NWOBHM galloper, except a thousand times heavier than all but the gloomiest of Sabbath disciples from that movement. Just constantly churning and building as the sorcerer shall rise. And then it eventually gives way into its climax, its eschatonian dream narrowly averted. And in that, the bands’ climax finds a strange sense of relief as the wordless feminine wailing carries the tune to its outro.
Meanwhile, penultimate cut in “Under the Oak” doesn’t fuck around from the outset and weaves its apocalyptic tale of woe and isolation against a ruined world. It was originally part of the Tales of Creation demo, and re-recorded when Edling and co. finally finished the concept for the album of the same name at the end of the 80’s, but fuck it – the original version here is better. The slower pace of this one gives the band’s riffage enough room to breathe and evoke its apocalyptic aura in painterly fashion. Langqvist, meanwhile, gives perhaps the finest vocal performance of the record (and therefore his career), particularly during the bridge. There’s a strange, unrestrained soulfulness he carries with him throughout the entire record – not just a virtuoso, but a man who’s vocal melodies complement the songs as effectively as anybody could ask for – but it is never felt harder than here, in the sort of purely honest form the band has never bothered hiding. Namely, the “I Cry for the ones I have lost” part is the emotional core of the song; everything revolves around it. And as great as the other Candlemass vocalists are, the only one who’s ever really nailed it dead-on is Langqvist in that song. And the solo is effortlessly brilliant, finding and searching for a strange kind of ecstasy in sorrow and desolation.
You really could go on for ages and ages about all six of the songs on this album; they’re all masterpiece, every single one. The merits of this album and its immediate successor, Nightfall, get debated around a lot – which one is better, shit like that. Not to disparage Nightfall – a nearly-equally brilliant record in spite of slightly weak pacing during its first half, because outside of that it really does live up to what most say about it – but as far as I’m concerned, this is Candlemass’s best record. Epicus Doomicus Metallicus is one of the most effortlessly consistent records ever made, with a level of drive, raw imagination and pure talent on display that is a once in a lifetime kind of event. Of a long and largely brilliant career, this is the shining high point of Candlemass, and one of the all-time greatest records ever made. Absolutely undeniable.
Album rating: 99/100
Favorite Track: A Sorcerers’ Pledge