Florida had a small but fairly vital collective of traditional metal bands in the 80’s, despite them being fairly different from each other. You had Nasty Savage, who were on that Slayer gone Mercyful Fate kick; the lean aggressive and bombast of Savatage, etc. There are perhaps others I’m regretfully missing off the top of my head. The point is that Crimson Glory was arguably the best of that small lot – and this album, in particular, deserves to be mentioned alongside the very best of all time.
The style on this album doesn’t seem super novel at first glance, admittedly. The band is pretty clearly influenced by the bludgeoning of Dio-era Black Sabbath; the harmonies of Iron Maiden, and perhaps even a little bit of the Scorpions, perhaps. What separates Crimson Glory from the pack, however, even before you take the vocals into account, is that they were a band with a distinct identity and clarity of vision from the start. It’s true they’re influenced by all those bands, yes; they also put their own spin on what those bands did and forge their own path. The blazing yet lilting harmonies; the muscular yet deceptively agile riffing; the subtly adept yet musical bass playing, etc. It doesn’t take longer than 20 secs into album opener Valhalla to figure out they were on their own trip. As tends to be the case with most of the actual greats, though, you have to dig into it to figure it out.
Crimson Glory’s gift, like with all of the greats, is the quality of their riffcraft and vocal melodies and being able to fused all of it together into cohesive, engaging songs. The riffing on here is almost uniformly excellent; as noted, there’s a low-end physicality to the riffage throughout the album that gives the harmonies and leads a chance to shine, without it turning into a pile of sugar-on-corn crap. Deceptively lithe (it’s really not an especially fast album, all told, but it frequently does feel faster because of the way the higher register riffs and harmonies strain against the drumming), but heavy and innately gripping when it counts. As importantly as the riffing, they play off the vocal melodies beautifully as well.
The vocals, of course, are courtesy of Midnight (real name Jon Patrick McDonald Jr), a man who, in a rightful universe, would be lauded among the all-time superstars of the genre. Midnight was a true virtuoso in the sense that he blended unbelievable technical skill WRT to vocal range and technique. At the same time, he infused the songs with the right sense of emotional accompaniment, with a deceptive power that mirrors the physicality of the riffing as much as the high-flying stuff. (compare the ending shriek to “Azrael” to any given post-Kiske EUPM vocalist and you can immediately notice who could actually Bring It) The vocal performance in OG album closer “Lost Reflection” says it as much as any of the soaring screams – a dusty, desolate performance to mirror a song about the sense of reality dissolving via isolation. Midnight infuses it with a pathos that’s far above and beyond most others’ ham-handed attempts at it, and it’s a testament to the man’s legacy that it still shows, years and years down the road.
Crimson Glory occasionally get cited as “progressive metal”, at least of the 80’s stripe, but I think that’s always been kind of a misnomer – they weren’t as labrythine as Fates Warning, nor as batshit as what Psychotic Waltz did almost half a decade afterward, true. However, they were a significantly more clever band when it came to song structure/arrangement than they got credit for – it’s certainly based on verse/chorus, true (outside of the aforementioned closer), but the band had a habit of knowing how to subtly tinker & stretch around with it. There’s an understanding of tension/release at play here – note how in the opener, what the band does is that they knowing delay the chorus quite a while, behind the initial verses; the riffs and Midnight’s lines gesture toward it in a way where it subtly escalates and escalates, and then when it does hit, it’s glorious shit when it does. So, while their song structures aren’t like, full blown prog, there’s an inherited flexibility from it that gives the band a lot more options than it would by adhering to a rigid cookie cutter verse/chorus/etc/solo-heavy bridge format. It works also because the band has a strong sense of diction, where to take these songs, what to do when necessary without coming across as overly schematized or robotic. A metal song is supposed to actually take you somewhere; Crimson Glory innately understood this idea. You can listen to a song like “Heart of Steel” (would-be kitsch that drips with such passion and feeling that it turns into a life-affirming anthem in a turn worthy of prime-era Manowar or Manilla Road in spirit), and just sort of understand it. Or, the aforementioned “Lost Reflection”, a mostly acoustic song that threatens to explode into blazing steel as it moves along… only for it to crumble into
Special mention, as always with this album, must go to the spell-binding masterpiece of the bunch in “Azrael”. Of all the songs on here, it shows the band’s deft balance between heady structure and blazing, scorching steel – the way its shrouded, acoustic intro evokes a descent into depths, to the way it suddenly gives way into that burning, charging harmony that sets the table for the rest of the track. The song refers back to both that and its main riff, a bludgeoning, muscular riff that’s quintessential USPM at its finest. Midnight plays and soars off the riffing with a mixture of aggression and grace that’s immediately striking, and the way the band constantly ramps up and escalates the tension, especially via sudden little lead guitar bursts, is a really neat detail. And even after it explodes into the solo (perhaps Drenning’s finest all told), it eventually comes back into a cool variation of the verse riff for the final one that revolves around a pinch harmonic. It’s a really terrific, visceral bit of songwriting that’s genuinely dramatic by dint of the band’s raw, visceral emotion coupled to their sense of direction and focus. Astoundingly brilliant.
Crimson Glory’s self titled is one of the finest metal albums of all time; it reconciles two different schools of USPM – the fancy, melodic semi-prog half of it, and the more muscular, burly, physical approach and does it with absolute ease and grace. Even with “Dream Dancer” (one of the best bonus tracks ever, incidentally, and the perfect bridge from this into the more overtly melodic stuff that dominated Transcendence), it blazes by with incredible ease and a sense of grace that a ton of metal doesn’t really touch. Absolutely essential, don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise.
Album rating: 97/100
Favourite track: Azrael