C O L U M N S
Crimson Glory - TranscendenceThe lowdown for this month's feature: Crimson Glory's excellent 1988 release, Transcendence, a peculiar record given the time period and the then current mystery that had already begun to circle the masked band after their eponymous debut from 1986, which is also a grievously underrated release in the annals of metal. I had the privilege of corresponding with founding guitarist Jon Drenning a couple of weeks ago to gain some further insight into this unique release.
The heavy metal of the 80's had blossomed into several distinct offshoots by the time Transcendence launched; true metal curators finding thrash now well established by the big four and digging deeper to find death and even the early stages of black metal begin to take shape, while others eagerly lapped up the sugar of the popped-out strains (read hair-metal) being spoon fed to them by MTV and other video outlets. In the midst of all this came the biggest shift in musical focus and popularity before Seattle flexed its flannelled muscle, that being, for lack of a better term, sleaze metal. You know the ilk, led by Guns n' Roses, bands like Skid Row, Badlands, Love/Hate and LA Guns took the hard rock sensibilities of 70s Aerosmith and BTO, heavied things up, and while keeping the simpler song structures of their poppier peers, eschewed the glam image, opting for a grittier look, this at least offering some crossover appeal to metal's more serious and heavy-minded bangers. As is often wont to happen, some groups step outside the confines of genre-defining borders and just make damn good albums that have a broader appeal, and in 1988 it was Queensryche's conceptual opus Operation: Mindcrime. But, another album from later that same year shamefully escaped the public eye, although being quite similar in style to Queensryche, and that was Crimson Glory's Transcendence.
Fronted by the highly enigmatic John McDonald, aka Midnight, who passed away earlier this year as a result of complications from excessive internal bleeding (R.I.P. 7/8/09), the band already had released a self-titled debut in 1986 to much acclaim in the underground, the guys reaching deep into their individual influences and combining them into a truly unique and memorable brand of metal, and while that album showed that the band's strengths were song-writing coupled with Midnight's otherworldly vocal presentation, the true culmination of their talents came with 1988's Transcendence.
Recorded at a time when many bands from Florida were concentrating on taking things to another extreme see Death, Deicide, and Morbid Angel vocalist Midnight, guitarists Jon Drenning and Ben Jackson, bassist Jeff Lords and drummer Dana Burnell were seeking to just make great music; no particular style in mind, simply melding their ideas and influences into memorable songs that would also allow Midnight to showcase his vocal talents. The band even utilized the same recording studio as those fellow luminaries--Florida based Morrisound Studios, a now infamous workshop in the recording library of metal. Now, concerning the recording that took place, there has always been a bit of confusion amongst the hardcore fans as to how the drums were actually laid down: were they sampled, synthesized, or authentic? Well, it's been stated in other interviews and Jon once again adds clarity to what transpired:
"We used a combination of both live and sampled drums. We sampled Dana performing live drums into a synclavier without any cymbals, [and] then re-recorded the cymbals live later in order to have complete separation of drums and cymbals. It was a very arduous and time consuming way to do it but at the time it seemed like something we wanted to try to achieve; a pristine, clean sound and true separation of all instruments. This has nothing to do with Dana breaking his back; that never happened and I have no idea where that rumor ever came from ".Well, the separation can be readily heard, each snap, crackle, and pop of the skins and china ringing with pristine clarity, which is probably what led to the ambiguous belief in the first place. Curious as to what songs, if any, gave the band fits as far as getting them to tape, Jon responds: "Probably "Burning Bridges," because it was in an odd key, both vocally and musically, probably the one that took the longest time to record as well".
The guys certainly made a concerted attempt at keeping an aura of mystery about them; from the masks to the album art, they encouraged fans to dig a bit deeper and engage their music with mental acumen, the back of the jacket even offering a cryptic puzzle to be deciphered (more on that later). As to the cover itself, its sci-fi presentation belies what waits between the grooves, but it does speak to the album title itself, in my mind at least I find it to be displaying mankind's far-off in the future ability to transcend our current confines of space and time. I asked Jon where the inspiration for the cover came from.
"I spent a lot of time at the library reading and researching subject matter for song ideas, and came across the image by the Japanese artist Takashi Torada on the cover of an issue of Omni magazine, and I knew instantly that this had to be our album cover. I had our manager track down the artist, who happened to live near Mt. Fuji, and he agreed to let us use it".Drop the needle onto the wax for the first time and you're treated to "Lady of Winter", a startling opener that sends chills down your spine upon first listen; a mid-paced, galloping riff segueing into the soaring chorus, Midnight immediately exemplifying his ability to hit the high note while relating this fantastical allegory. Next up is "Red Sharks", probably the fastest of the ten tracks. This time the chorus is a slow build, low to high in tone and intensity, Midnight and fellow alum decrying septic decrees sent forth by the despots of the world to their enslaved peoples. Following "Red Sharks" is my personal favorite from any of their releases, "Painted Skies"; hell, I almost always hit replay after hearing it, the highly emotive and lofty chorus touching a chord in the soul. The song to this day remains a fan favorite, and always reminds me of "The Lady Wore Black" from Queensryche; starting out with an introspective acoustic guitar, the affecting vocals relating the story of a woman persecuted as the epic ballad plays out. Track number four is "Masque of the Red Death", yes, about the very story written by Edgar A. Poe, and its vicious riffing recalls Jake E Lee stylings via Bark at the Moon. Following is another personal favorite, "In Dark Places" launching slow and gloomy, the main riff trundling along, and its beat cut short every other measure adding to the dejection, the lyrics perfectly complementing the malaise.
In fact, when I asked Jon what his favorite track from Transcendence was he had this to say:
"My favorite would have to be "In Dark Places," although there were members of the band who weren't too keen on it at first...they grew to love it though, and it's one of our better songs in my opinion. Midnight loved it too, but his favorite would probably have been "Painted Skies," which started as a simple piano ballad, and grew into the epic version you hear today. It's another of our better songs, I think".Here too is my favorite lead by Jon, a slinky, sinuous, and slow burn that perfectly conveys the overall feeling of the track; take note aspiring musicians, this is Songwriting 101! The haunting outro fades off leading the listener into the fantasy-themed track, "Where Dragons Rule"; a cool phase-shifting tone lightly placed upon the guitars' main riff lending itself to the otherworldly motif. "Lonely" is next, its lyrical content and delicate opening recalling "Painted Skies" from four songs back, but this time things take a decidedly quick left turn into heaviness, a chunky start/stop riff connected by Jeff Lords' varied and killing bass lines which continue right up through to the chorus. Moving on, "Burning Bridges", is probably the most progressive to be found on the record. Keyboard flourishes added to the dark chord progressions which go through a number of movements to create an ethereal atmosphere to the song, and the guitars, choosing to harmonize with the vocals in the spiraling descent of the chorus, add to the effect. The second to last track is "Eternal World", and it's the one song I always felt to be the weakest link of the album. Why, I don't know, in fact, the solo section is the fastest thing done by the band so far, but in its entirety it feels haphazard, a bit thrown together, and by far it's the least memorable.
Curious, I inquired of Jon about the writing sessions for this album and whether any of the material was left over from the first outing or the ideas were started afresh. His response: "They were all fresh. "Eternal World" was written as an instrumental for the tour of our first record in Holland, but other than that, everything was new". This may be the answer as to why the song has always felt a bit out of place to me. Regardless, we find the title track closing out the album, and it's very similar to that of "Lost Reflection", the final song from their first release: quiet, haunting, introspective, the rhythm guitar freely oscillating with a bit of electric effects thrown in, the thrust of the song designed for Midnight and his vocalizations to bleed from the speakers and into your being, easing the threat of death and its blade; a portent and fitting end to the previous fifty minutes of sonic bliss.
The guys certainly saw their share of crowds once they took the record out onto the road, Jon stating that they toured all over Europe opening for the likes of Metallica, Queensryche, Ozzy, and Anthrax. They even headlined a US tour as well as in Japan, and stinted at the mighty Metal Hammer Anniversary Festival in Germany, circa 1990. Of course, the fondest of memories are made from experiences on the road, and when asked what instances come to mind when looking back upon the touring of the time, Jon had this to say:
"One of the most memorable moments for sure was getting lost in the maze of hallways beneath the Hammersmith Odeon. It was a real Spinal Tap moment for us...we were late coming onstage because of it; I don't remember how long it took us to finally get up there".A sore subject to be sure, the business side of the music industry can be a frustrating aspect of band life, especially during times when it seems that no matter how hard you try, you just can't seem to get a break. This was felt as recently as 2006 when the band had scheduled plans for an anthology box set to be issued on Black Lotus Records, as well as the possibility of a new, now long-awaited follow-up to 1999's Astronomica, just before the label went under, inevitably delaying those releases. And, if you think the band at least receives some meager stipends for the back catalog, think again, Jon explains:
"Companies that we licensed our materials to have never paid us any royalties, and then they relicensed our materials to additional companies illegally, which we have never been paid for, either. It's a mess and a true disgrace for us to have been treated this way, and one of the main reasons why we haven't recorded more albums. We feel that no matter what we do, our materials will be illegally sold and distributed by companies that don't have the legal right to do so. It has been extremely disheartening for us and makes us wary of trusting anyone".A sad treatise to be sure, for any new releases won't bear any fruit from reissues (of which there are already several), but lets hope the boys find a way to get some unreleased material from the day out there at some point. There seems to be at least a few buried gems yet to see the light of day, for I inquired as to what may be collecting dust: "There [are] various demos that have never been released, as well as a few unreleased songs that were demo'd as well. Hopefully these will all be released for the band's 25th anniversary in 2011", states Jon, so maybe in another year or so we'll see some of these goodies finally come to light.
Looking back to over 20 years ago now, I invited Jon to share what he remembers most about the album and the time they spent creating it:
"Making Transcendence was a great time for us; we spent a tremendous amount of time together rehearsing, writing and arranging the songs. Midnight was really at the top of his game; we had a lot of fun in the studio recording late into the night. We wanted to make a record that would withstand the test of time, something that would be truly special. We knew our fans were anticipating something great and we didn't want to let anybody down. We didn't want to do anything that wasn't going to be outstanding and memorable. Everyone worked really hard on that record, everyone in the band truly shone and I think we all knew that [we] were creating something truly special and long-lasting".Certainly, many go into their sophomore effort with the intent of outshining their debut, yet fall flat. In Crimson Glory's case though, its immediately perceptible the painstaking care which they used to contrive each tune, for the entire album reeks of a maturity and professionalism not often achieved.
Lift the needle, put the album back in its sleeve, and pause for a moment to study the back of the jacket before carefully sliding it back atop the record shelf. You'll find a final arcane and equivocal piece of the puzzle that made up Crimson Glory. As to its perplexing purpose, Jon expounds: "I wanted to use the symbolism and cryptology to send a message to those fans who had the vision and the motivation to understand it. Along with the masks, it added to the mystery around the band. We wanted to create something that would last a lifetime and beyond, and it has. When we're gone, that message will still be alive, someone will be reading it". What does it say you ask? Well, when deciphered, it reads as follows: We will strike down the ones who lead us, we are your future, we are forever. Somewhat prescient, foreboding, and all at once haunting, but, that's always been Crimson Glory's modus operandi, and a fitting requiem to a lost classic.
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