The indescribable charm of Glenn Danzig is as complex as the man himself. The hulking, black-clad, gothic behemoth, for all his character flaws, is captivating in the most profound way possible. Formerly the mastermind of perhaps punk’s most evil band, Misfits, and then, following their split, their more metal-orientated successors, Samhain, Danzig’s gravelly grumbles on sadomasochistic subject matter are enough to scare a man made of iron into submission, and yet, the more titbits of information I learn about the singer, the more enthralled by his character I become. From his admiration of anime and manga to his time spent as a protégé of lauded martial artist and former pupil of Bruce Lee, Jerry Poteet, Danzig’s diverse interests and flashes of an oddly delightful personality can easily emotionally invest a listener in one of his many albums of gore, guts, sorcery and smut more than one might like to admit. Indeed, Danzig, as a person, may have the many layers of an onion, but his music has always been bastardly forthright and upfront in its presentation. The musician’s occultist and erotic obsessions have consistently remained at the forefront of his lyrics and his bands’ images, just as his vile brand of punk and metal has remained consistently oppressive. Glenn Danzig’s current band, appropriately named Danzig, originated as somewhat of a second iteration of Samhain, with the line-up change coming due to the demands of Rick Rubin, after signing Glenn to Def American Recordings. With this personnel reshuffle, however, came a stylistic change of pace away from Samhain’s deathrock sound, towards a fusion of heavy metal, doom metal and blues rock that takes cues from early Black Sabbath, with Danzig even covering the classic N.I.B. on their previous studio release, Skeletons. Indeed, with the band’s last album being comprised entirely of covers, their latest undertaking, Black Laden Crown, comes succeeding a seven-year silence of original material since 2010’s Deth Red Sabaoth. Having taken three years to complete and requiring five separate drummers, including Glenn himself, for the recording process, it seems likely that the group may have run into some logistical difficulties during the creation of Black Laden Crown, and it really shows. What isn’t quite so clear, however, is what exactly the three years spent in the studio amounted to, with this new record from Danzig featuring production that could be put to shame by some karaoke compilations. Previous Danzig endeavours have been known for their lo-fi quality, but Black Laden Crown is not so much aesthetically rough around the edges more than it is a chore to listen to, courtesy of some of the most jarring and unbalanced mixing I have heard on a metal release all year. Despite the production unequivocally being the most pervasive and grating foible of the album, what’s more disappointing to admit is that Black Laden Crown also sees Glenn’s once beefy, baritone voice wearing thin, and Danzig’s previous, powerful, plodding performances failing to translate any semblance of the industrious energy boasted by the metal outfit’s past projects. Adding to all of these woes is some of the most inconspicuous, rudimentary and generally drab songwriting to appear on any Danzig album thus far, leaving Black Laden Crown as a sorry stain on Danzig’s discography.
Undoubtedly the first thing to hit the listener upon first being exposed to Black Laden Crown, besides its atrocious album artwork, is the production value, and the extent to which Glenn’s vocals aren’t seamlessly worked into the mix, more than they are haphazardly plopped on top of a quiet instrumental at a bafflingly loud volume. This is true to the point that the record should almost come with a warning, in that, after turning up the volume upon hearing the intro of the strangely quiet opening title track, Glenn’s singing stumbles in at such an inexcusably loud volume that the listener will be scrambling for the volume down button; either that or the mute button. Glenn’s vocals have routinely held a prominent place in the mix on Danzig albums, and for good reason, given how much of a charismatic and individual singer he is. The production on Black Laden Crown, however, almost single-handedly renders the entire record unlistenable, with the listener spending the vast majority of their time with the record turning up the volume to hear the ludicrously quiet instrumental mixes, only to be abruptly assaulted by Glenn’s bellows and turn the volume back down again. Many may describe Danzig’s music as challenging in how direct and in-your-face it can be, but Black Laden Crown is quite literally a challenge, in that the listening experience boils down to an endless battle between the mixing and the listener’s will to not develop tinnitus. My previous comparison to a karaoke CD is a fitting one, as the only justification I could possibly see for the vocals being mixed so jarringly loud is if these songs were engineered for some obscure, doom metal karaoke release. It truly is baffling how anyone could have green lit Black Laden Crown with its mixing as is, but the one possible reason for this that I could fathom is because of Glenn’s waning vocal capabilities. Indeed, the once impenetrable power and passion of the frontman’s singing seem to have been significantly eroded, to the point that what was once an interesting vocal style, which saw Glenn’s reverence for country music and rockabilly work its way into his deliveries, now comes across as a weak attempt at a jazzman’s vibrato. One could argue that this sound is one that comes with age, and that Glenn’s vocals across Black Laden Crown are weathered and charmingly raspy, but his inflection has always retained that sort of quality, and the vocals that appear on Danzig’s latest release are a paper-thin version of that style. It seems, therefore, as if the unbearably loud mixing of Glenn’s vocals across the album was intended to mask over this fact, but, aside from how grating of a technique this is, it ultimately highlights the imbalances in his voice, as he strives for varying pitches and dynamics. This, combined with the cramped mixing of the instrumentals and the woefully underproduced drums, makes for less than a pleasing listening experience based on sonic quality alone.
From a compositional standpoint, Black Laden Crown offers very little that one wouldn’t expect from a doom metal record by default. The majority of the songs in the tracklisting are badly bloated, drawing out passages that have no business being as long as they are. It becomes clear that this will likely be the case from the very opening moments of the album, with the title track’s lead riff being repeated, unchanged, for an entire minute before Glenn’s vocals barge in, and this is a trend across much of the record. Doom metal is often a genre about testing the listener’s patience, but on Black Laden Crown, Danzig don’t offer any of the intricacies or subtleties that reward the listener’s attention to detail, rather they will too often resort to repeating a single riff or motif to the point of it losing any punch it may have initially had. This is only worsened by the fact that so many of the nine songs on the album follow an almost identical formula. Eyes Ripping Fire, But a Nightmare and Blackness Falls all recycle similar structures, riffs and drumbeats that are not only familiar within the context of Black Laden Crown, but across Danzig’s back-catalogue in general, with these tracks adhering to a blueprint that was executed with exponentially greater success across the band’s early output. The anaemic guitar solos peppered across the album also add to the list of mind-numbing aspects of the album, with the incidentals to appear on a song such as the title track being performed with the confidence of a beginner who has just learned the Aeolian mode, and that’s not to mention the horrible, whimpering distortion of the guitar tone. Tracks such as Skulls & Daisies, which is a perfectly passable southern-fried blues rock song at its core, strive for triumphant hooks that the group doesn’t achieve, partially as a result of Glenn’s feeble vocals, but also because of the disappointingly understated drumming that, across the whole album, does very little to progress any of the pieces in a particularly forceful fashion. Oddly enough, despite how polarising it was as a single, Devil on Hwy 9 stands out as one of the more competent cuts in the tracklisting, in that it follows a structure that, whilst basic, at least progresses enough to sustain interest, whilst the chugging groove reinforces the gritty, biker attitude of the song. This being said, even amongst the more cohesive tracks on Black Laden Crown, the moments that even come close to exceeding what could be considered the bear minimum to expect from a Danzig album, or any release from a heavy/doom metal outfit of their ilk, are few and far between.
Ultimately, of the many shortcomings of Black Laden Crown, the vast majority of them pertain to issues with the album’s presentation, whether it be concerning the shoddy production or weak performances. As for the songs themselves, although they may be as elementary as can be, they aren’t necessarily beyond the point of salvageability. With appropriately powerful production, pummelling performances and enough attention to detail to warrant their lengths, at least a handful of these cuts could be made into decent, blues-tinged, doom metal tracks. This is purely speculative, however, because, as they stand on Black Laden Crown, there is a lot left to be desired in their presentation, and much of it comes down to Glenn Danzig himself, as much as I hate to admit it. Too many moments from this new Danzig album stray dangerously close to sounding like dad rock’s edgy cousin, and the last thing any of us want to see Glenn turn into is an out of touch relic of the past. Overall, Black Laden Crown may not be the final nail in the coffin for Danzig’s career, but it doesn’t bode well for the future of the band by any stretch of the imagination.
The Vinyl Verdict: 3/10