Album Review: Black Royal – ‘The Summoning Pt. 2’

Some artists can be quite difficult to talk about for multiple reasons. Some are difficult to talk about because their sound is almost impossible to describe to anyone not already familiar with the band (see Issues), some bands are difficult to talk about because of stuff related to the artist themselves (see Gary Glitter), some bands are difficult to talk about because their sound is one that only fans of the genre will be able to recognise anything unique about it while those not already firmly entrenched in the genre will not be able to enjoy it at all (see…well, pretty much all extreme metal)…and sometimes, it’s hard to even say much about the band because the information about them is so thin that you literally have to hope that the information you do find is accurate.

Black Royal don’t QUITE fall into the latter category, but I’d be lying if I said I could find a lot about them that wasn’t included in the promo I received about them. Since I don’t want to be lazy, though, I’m going to try to rephrase it rather than taking the copy-paste route.

So, for those wondering who Black Royal are, they’re a Finnish band that formed in the city of Tempere, which is the most populous inland city in any of the Nordic countries (with a popular of around 364,000 people in the metropolitan area) and is sometimes called the Manchester of Finland due to its past in industry as the former centre of that sector of work in Finland. The band’s sound can best be summed up as death metal mixed with sludge metal (for the benefit of those not in the know, sludge metal is basically a fusion of hardcore punk and doom metal, with some Southern rock fused in as well in some cases), with a few other influences sneaking in as necessary and the band have one previous release to their name, The Summoning Pt. 1, which was released in February 2015. The band’s members  are drummer Jukka Hiltunen, bassist and vocalist Pete Kantola, vocalist Riku Niemela (who might be familiar to some people for being the drummer of the now-disbanded thrash/groove metal band Steep and the vocalist for death/thrash/groove metallers Days of Disgrace) and guitarist and backing vocalist Toni Morjes (although the members only go by their first names in Black Royal).

So, what do I think of The Summoning Pt. 2? Well…to be honest, I think the band’s sound is very interesting and there’s nothing that I can say is bad about the EP. However, I do think that some things leave room to be desired and need tightening up if the band wants to make the impact they are capable of.

BLACK ROYAL - The Summoning Pt. 2 cover art

Let me talk in more detail about the band’s sound, because it’s quite an unusual sound to pin down. See, on paper, the band would be easy to label as a sludge/death metal band, but, while that isn’t an inaccurate description of their sound, it doesn’t really do their sound justice. Probably the best way to describe the band’s sound is that sludge and death metal are the core to the band’s sound, but elements of more melodic styles of music can be heard as well: certainly, the occasional use of punk vocals show a more diverse range of influences than might be expected on paper and I’d be lying if I said that I couldn’t see some occasional hints of psychedelic music popping up in the band’s music (which, admittedly, might just be the overlap in sounds of doom and psychedelic music). The band claims influence from 70s rock, but, honestly, I couldn’t hear that particular influence very well, which doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there, just that I didn’t hear that particular influence in the band’s sound. In any case, the band’s sound is probably one of the strangest sounds I’ve had to describe in a while and certainly is one of the strangest sounds I’ve heard with strong doom metal influences I’ve heard this year.

It’s also all combined together very well: usually, I tend to find bands who take a lot of influences from different genres either have one core genre as their main sound base while the rest of their influences come across more as flavouring to add and adjust levels of as necessary, which isn’t a bad thing (it certainly keeps things varied!), but it does tend to mean that you can pin down one core genre as the band’s undeniable favourite. Not here, though: while the core of the music certainly shows more sludge metal influence than death metal, the strong preference for death metal vocals and the faster touches which clearly show a recognition of what makes death metal work prevent the band’s sound from feeling merely like sludge metal with a death metal vocalist. I can’t say that it’s the best combination of the two genres out there, but badly done, it is not!

The songwriting, understandably, has to juggle a lot as a result, yet I can’t say Black Royal fails to deliver here either. A common trap for doom metal-influenced bands is to produce material that is so focused on being slow and hauntingly atmospheric that the whole record moves at a pace that would put a glacier to shame and blends together to produce something that doesn’t really offer anything except being a cure for insomnia (albeit one which is unlikely to result in pleasant dreams), but Black Royal avoids that one thanks to having faster songs like ‘Scorn the Saint’ and ‘Fireball’ that offer variety to the tempos. The songs themselves don’t really break from established songwriting structures, but this isn’t too major a complaint for me, considering established songwriting structures are popular because they work and Black Royal aren’t playing anything with a progressive mindset behind it. While I’m sure death metal fans will consider this next comment a bad thing, the music itself is somewhat catchy, being fairly memorable without necessarily coming across as poppy in the slightest due to the crushing nature of the music. Really, my only major criticism of the songwriting is that, on ‘Reclaim the Throne’, the result goes on a bit longer than it possibly meant to, but this is probably not a huge issue for doom metal fans, considering doom itself is built upon very long and slow songs!

The performances on the instrument front are what you’d expect from this sort of material: technically, the focus is more on simplicity and noise than incredibly technical performances, but the performances are still far enough above punk level that you can tell that the musicians are capable of producing material which has some complexity behind it. Toni’s guitar playing has its moments of interest, but I get the feeling that he is more comfortable as a rhythm guitarist than as a lead guitarist, as his guitar solos tend to be fairly simplistic and not all that memorable, though played with some appreciation for the fact that playing as many notes as humanly possibly doesn’t necessarily result in the most fitting of guitar solos for this style of music. Pete’s bass playing has its moments in the more doom metal focused songs, but he generally is more providing a solid background for the rest of the material, so it can be easy to miss him and I doubt anyone would find what he does to be on the level of the greats in the genre. Jukka’s drumming is fairly solid and, while he doesn’t push himself to do anything expected from an extreme metal drummer (like double bass drumming), what he does demonstrate on this record shows that he is capable of doing a lot without too much difficulty. So yeah, nothing mindblowing, but certainly respectable enough, in my book!

Riku’s extreme metal vocals are…OK. I can’t say he’s a bad vocalist in good faith, but his harsh vocals are definitely not going to win over anyone familiar with vocalists like Glenn Benton or Lord Worm, as his technique is nowhere near their level of skill, as his vocals are very much based in the harsh growl style without anything to really help him to stand out from the legion of extreme metal vocalists out there. To Riku’s credit, he definitely has some power to his vocals, you can make out the lyrics (sort of: he’s still not exactly easy to understand, but I get the feeling I could transcribe his lyrics with some time and patience) and he is able to keep them consistent across the whole record, but I feel that he needs to refine his vocals a bit more before he can be fairly called a strong extreme metal vocalist. The rest of the vocals (I’m presuming they’re not by Riku, but I could be wrong on that one) are decent as well, but, well, they’re basically punk yells at their core, so there’s not really a lot to comment on there.

The production on the EP is mostly fine, with my only major complaint being that I think the sound on the record is a bit rawer than it meant to be. I know, this isn’t a problem for most people, but it feels like the guitars has been recorded louder than it meant to be and it makes the instrument sound more than a bit swamped by distortion. To be fair, doom metal influence in general usually means a huge amount of distortion on the guitars, which could mean this is a case of fitting in with the genre, which is fair enough if it is the case, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it just because it is a typical aspect of the sound. The rest of the production is fine, though: the bass guitar is audible without too much difficulty and sounds reasonably good, the drums sound awesome (they certainly avoid sounding plasticy, which is a huge plus for me!) and the mastering, while probably a bit in need of a slight turn down, is a lot better than I was expecting it to be. I can’t say that I love this production, but there’s not a lot that I really think needs rectifying aside from the guitar sound (which might well be justified as just a part of the genre).

Ultimately, The Summoning Pt. 2 is the work of a band that has hit upon a good sound and can do it well with mostly solid performances, but might want to work on a few elements before they take the plunge into making a full length album. It’s hard to see this appealing to anyone who isn’t already on board with this sound, if I’m honest, as it requires you to be on board with sludge metal and death metal (not a guaranteed thing, even among metal fans), but there’s certainly a lot to enjoy about this EP if you are able to approach it on its own terms. It’s not really album of the year material in my book, but it’s a solid EP by a band who I can see doing well on the international scene if they take the time to improve on a few things and get the right push.

The Summoning Pt. 2 will be released on the 18th of May by Armless Stranger. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.