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Crippled Black Phoenix: Ellengæst

Initially garnering attention as the band founded by multi-instrumentalist Justin Greaves (ex-Iron Monkey), Crippled Black Phoenix has spent the past 16 years as a respected band within post-rock and sludge metal circles. With associated acts ranging from Mogwai to Electric Wizard, the band’s revolving lineup can’t seem to stop changing. Recording a new album right after losing a vocalist and a keyboardist is easier said than done, but Greaves and company weren’t about to let a follow-up to 2018’s Great Escape slip through their fingers. Perhaps these last-minute changes brought renewed excitement to Ellengæst. Still, what really stands out is the impressive rogues’ gallery of fill-in vocalists to further elevate Crippled Black Phoenix’s sound.

From lone trumpet blasts and a full-band volume surge, “House of Fools” locks into a moody, immersive atmosphere. With vocals handled by Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh, the song sets a tone of melodious melancholy within the raw emotion and expansive textures. Crippled Black Phoenix hasn’t lost its sense of scope and heaviness, as it grows from echoing pianos to gargantuan riffs, but the vocal spotlight brings vulnerability to the soaring tremolo picking and explosive percussion.

To that effect, “Lost” makes use of more “rock” than “post-.” As her earthy tom-toms emerge from processed music box samples, vocalist/drummer Belinda Kordic’s haunting drawl completes the song’s dark, witchy Southern Gothic feel. She bemoans the dismal state of civilization with a fervent refrain: “You have failed them, future generations failed/ We are lost as humans.”

Ellengæst’s sonic immediacy reflects Crippled Black Phoenix’s streamlined line-up. Indeed, it’s easier to recommend “Cry of Love” to fans of King Dude than Neurosis or Isis, as Ryan Patterson’s gritty baritone glides over the lush riffage and driving backbeat as naturally as he does in his post-punk project Fotocrime. Solo artist Suzie Stapleton joins in the chorus, balancing infectious hooks and rustic heaviness over walls of guitar feedback and synth drones.

“Everything I Say” polarizes this album’s stripped-back quotient with its monumental potential. Kordic’s distinctive singing drives the song as much as its bombastic, descending chord progression, knowing when to let a rapturous crescendo take its course. The band can combine forces to an overwhelming effect, but also leave room for hypnotic piano lines and ethereal ambient effects.

No one expected to hear Gaahl sounding like Tom Waits on “In the Night,” but that’s the beauty of Ellengæst, really. The guests find a new voice when singing for Crippled Black Phoenix, and in turn push the band in different directions. The line “Wounds heal, cuts mend/ Live to fight another day” packs a palpable impact, as Gaahl harmonizes with Kordic over tectonic guitar strains and rumbling timbre. The song also reveals its underlying mental health angle with a spoken word intro; a woman recalls misguided attempts at emotional expression during her childhood.

This sentiment recurs in the interlude “(-),” in which washy organ drones weave through a chilling monologue about the nature of clinical depression. The depiction of personal hell lingers on the minimalist guitar pattern that begins “The Invisible Past.” This song epitomizes Crippled Black Phoenix’s post-rock element, as Greaves and guitarist Andy Taylor milk the song’s central melody for every feeling it’s worth. Over a slow and steady half-time shuffle, Tribulation vocalist Jonathan Hulten’s gloomy, yet serene singing guides the song along an 11-minute journey of hypnotic, cathartic dynamic shifts. It ultimately centers on the balm for chaotic evil with parting lines: “It’s life that is blooming and there is no doubt/ That all is love, love is all.”

Such mesmerizing, earth-shaking balladry stands in contrast to the punchy rhythms of closer “She’s in Parties.” And yet, Crippled Black Phoenix proves itself both within bouncy post-punk and melancholic doom. The band’s propensity for volume worship and soundscapes never overtakes, well, a rock band playing rock music. Where previous albums tended to get lost in their own ambitions, Ellengæst dials things in with gravity and vehemence. The instrumentation amounts to much more than a vehicle for the outsourced vocalists—but considering how well said outsourcing has gone over, maybe they should keep calling friends in.

Crippled Black Phoenix proves itself both within bouncy post-punk and melancholic doom.
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