Candlemass’s later two 80’s records are an example of how expectation can distort and alter the perception of certain works. They are both fine albums, but because this was also the band who happened to write two of the best albums of all time right before (forget genre for a second), they both tend to be dismissed because they happened to be ever-so-slightly flawed by comparison. Which is a perverse reinforce of the band’s greatness at their peak, in a sense – a friend of mine recently put it that even the two “weaker” Candlemass albums would still make them one of the best doom metal bands of all time. 1988’s Ancient Dreams, in spite of a couple songwriting slips on its back half, still features one of the strongest A-sides in doom metal. And so it goes for its successor, 1989’s Tales of Creation… albeit it is a better, more consistent record than the previous one was.
The concept behind Tales of Creation actually dated back quite a few years prior to this record. Between Nemesis and when Candlemass was formed, bassist and chief composer Leif Edling had the idea of an album about the creation of life and its journey. An early version of the band recorded a demo in 1985 that had a number of songs that would eventually make it to this album. They didn’t finish it at the time, of course, and the one song that made it to what became Epicus Doomicus Metallicus was “Under the Oak”. As Edling put it, “that was the only track the other guys thought was any good” (quote from an interview he gave on the 2005 bonus disc reissue of Tales of Creation that also has the demo on it).
It was perhaps for the that it took the band a few years and a couple lineup changes for them to return to this core idea and fully flesh it out. I really don’t think anybody other than this particular era of Candlemass could’ve pulled off such a heady concept especially in doom metal – there are quite a few pitfalls that come with attempting to do it after all. You toy around with interludes too much, for instance, and a band ends up kneecapping the actual music’s ability to convey real emotional meaning/truth. It’s a concept that requires a certain deftness in how it’s handled, lest it be ham-handed or preachy with a lesser group.
As we’ve already established, though, Candlemass aren’t an ordinary band – not beforehand, and certainly not now. They are one of the few doom bands who exalt light as much as darkness in near-equal measures, and more important, they were shamelessly honest about doing exactly that when you peel past the bombast. This wasn’t a new thing by this point, either – after all, do consider that this was the same band who put “At the Gallows End” and “Samarithan” were back to back on Nightfall two years beforehand. It was always a staple of this era of the band; it’s just that Tales of Creation is the most overt about it; that the band does it without ever really sacrificing the sheer physical heaviness of their formal style or lose a grip on writing innately memorable, powerful doom metal is a testament to the band’s overwhelming brilliance during the entirety of the 80’s.
That they were always sorely underrated in their variety of tempo use is a huge asset in their favor, for the most part. The opening one-two of “The Prophecy” – an intro song built around a pair of impossibly regal tone-setters for riffs while the narration lays out the concept of the album – and “Dark Recollections” is one of the strongest in both the band’s catalog; arguably of metal in general. It is a far speedier song then you’d be accustomed to initially– its main riff being essentially being a galloping figure except with the band’s punishing sense of leaden, bludgeoning weight driving it. The way the guitars and drums play off each other is absolutely crushing, carrying with ‘em an hammering effect that’s both innately memorable and insistently urgent. It’s a fairly fast song by the standards of doom, and yet it obviously carries with it an innate sense of pessimism and gloom alongside its general urgency, particularly as it moves into its more trudging chorus and bridge passages. Messiah’s voice is a perhaps a tad more understated on this record than on the previous two – that he’s mixed in relatively low next to the guitars on the album in general underlines the effect – but he gives the kind of endlessly spirited, dramatic performance that you would come to expect from him. The man always sounded like he had the time of his life singing for this band and the raw passion and honesty behind his performance never fails to shine through.
In general, this album has a whole bevy of songs that are among the most underrated cuts of the band’s storied career. “Tears” alternates between a trudging, mournful verse riff and a much quicker, sprightlier chorus featuring one of the more impassioned outbursts Messiah lays down on the record; the contrast between the two is what makes it click without being totally graceless about it. That it also boasts one of the nicest solos that Lars Johansson lays down during the outro is one of the sweeter moments in their discography. “The Edge of Heaven” features a surprisingly understated riff that takes a little bit to build up and get untracked, and when it finally does it’s one of the most satisfying moments on the album; pure leaden weight mirroring the power of Messiah’s voice effortlessly. “Through the Infinitive Halls of Death”, meanwhile, is one of the more urgent songs in the band’s catalog; a pounding, ominous intro giving way into a central riff that’s somewhat gallop, and uneven in the way it matches the groove the drums lay down – mirror the sense of onrushing death and dread the song conveys. That it collapses into a dirgy chord-driven trudge toward the end of the song as its effective climax is a neat move and one that’s fairly untraditional in its effect.
Of course, the title track is low-key one of the absolute strongest songs the band ever wrote – on par with about anything you could name off their previous two records. It really has one of the most colossal, regal riffs the band ever wrote – the sort of almost neo-classical melody wrapped up in pure, bludgeoning force that only this band and maybe a couple others could pull off. It feels like a natural, effortless culmination of everything the record built up to – the way it moves between that central riff into the chorus riff is sublime; a much more lithe riff mirrored by the synths and Messiah’s voice just all mesh together in sublime fashion (“with my tears, the rain fell down…” is another instance of something being iffy in text that Messiah just happens to bring to life with pure, honest conviction). Alongside “Samarithan”, it is perhaps the other big example of how the band could exalt divine inspiration – or light, if you’d rather be less melodramatic about it – and absolutely own it without ever sacrificing the heaviness or subccumbing to pure schmaltz. It brings the album full circle to its conclusion, a slower and graceful restatement of “The Prophecy” complete with a majestic variation on that riff courtesy of Johansson. What a fuckin song.
Still though, it is truthful that, for its many triumphs and general underappreciation, Tales of Creation is a mildly inconsistent album when viewed against its predecessors. Few things measure up, of course, but it is nonetheless a little bit more up and down. While I’ve grown to tolerate it over the years, “Into the Unfathomed Tower” has never been one of my favorite songs by the band. It has the novelty of being an instrumental and the fastest, most shreddy song the band ever wrote. The problem is that it doesn’t really feel like it really fits in with the rest of the album – Candlemass is a band that always handled that sort of melody and how to handle flashiness better than most other metal bands. And it’s not entirely wank because there’s a very clear melodic through-line the song revolves around, but it is nonetheless strangely self-indulgent in a way I don’t really vibe with that much. It’s definitely tolerable but never been one of my favorite tracks by the band. The other one is a more personal quibble: I’m not as fond of “Under the Oak” on this album as the Epicus Doomicus Metallicus version. Messiah is certainly up to the task of handling it, and he does a fine job, but this version is generally faster than the original – I think it’s almost a minute shorter, natch – and as such doesn’t have as much of the raw emotional power and impact of the EDM version. Johansson’s solos don’t match the riffage as well as Klaus Bergwall’s did (despite the general tone of this paragraph, I really like Johansson a lot as a lead guitarist and consider him a very underrated player generally). It’s still a fine song – one of the best the band ever wrote, despite protestations to the contrary, and one that is necessary in the context of the album much to the chagrin of the faux Pauline Kael-wannabe Contrarian Music Critic (without a tenth of the intelligence, wit nor writing skill) – but ultimately it’s a touch slight compared to the original version on the debut.
That minor stuff aside, Tales of Creation is a further reminder of how excellent Candlemass was in their prime. Even with its small faults, the band showcases a level of all around excellent – creatively, raw talent and passion – that most bands would cut off one of their limbs to even have a small taste of. They are one of the best metal bands of all time for a reason; let this album serve as further reminder of such.
Favorite track: A Tale of Creation