Finding ponderous, majestic gothic metal with female vocals on Napalm Records is about as shocking as finding an egg coming out the ass of a chicken. The label has definitely cornered the market of late on romantic, dramatic Eurometal with various permutations of goth, doom and death mixed in. Sweden's DRACONIAN, a rising star on the label's roster, have released this stopgap album to tide over the mournful masses awaiting their next harvest of sorrow — and it's easy to see why they've made such a name for themselves in so short a time.DRACONIAN's stock in trade is slow, doomy atmosphere, augmented by both ethereal female singing and tastefully grim (is that even possible?) death metal vocals. Big simple riffs and plaintive, somewhat sparse keyboards bring an atmosphere of the mid-1990s to mind — this is dramatic, majestic stuff cut from the same cloth as the greats of this style. Anyone into NOVEMBERS DOOM or the early works of the British unholy trinity (MY DYING BRIDE, PARADISE LOST, ANATHEMA) will be thrilled by this display of funereal bleakness. The first three tracks on "The Burning Halo" are the new ones, and all are high-quality examples of prime gothic doom/death. "Through Infectious Waters", in particular, is a masterpiece, with a loping, urgent tempo at the beginning, which decays into a more hushed and mournful tone. All three are long, drawn-out, somber and beautiful, in that obsidian way of the best music of this ilk — this is the real thing, not the downtuned minor-key rock and roll so many gothic bands churn out. Just listen to the main riff in "The Dying" — each sobbing, crawling note of the riff seems to lurch forward, propelled by the kick drum, like a stumbling mourner lost in the darkness and bearing the weight of the world with each step. What sets DRACONIAN apart isn't just its atmosphere and conviction in those moments, but when the band shifts into heavier and more startling terrain. They do this sparingly, but when they do, it's never gratuitous — it's always in service to the song, and the vibe. This isn't quite as perfect on tracks 4-6, which are reworked songs from a 1999 demo, but even these slightly more primitive affairs are just seething with pathos, dripping with the same overarching emotions as the new songs. "The Gothic Embrace" is arguably the best of the three, a bit overreaching at ten minutes, but ambitious and atmospheric with some interesting production and arrangement choices. Of the two cover songs, I was only familiar with PENTAGRAM classic "Forever My Queen" — definitely not the first choice I'd pick for DRACONIAN. They do a decent job of it, but it sticks out amid the resplendent gloom of "The Burning Halo" like a sore thumb (and the duet of clean male and death metal vocals is a serious misstep). Their version of (Dutch classic prog band) EKSEPTION's "On Sunday They Will Kill the World" works much better, fitting into the band's style to the point that it could well be one of their originals (other than the crazy piano solo, perhaps). DRACONIAN are impressive as hell on this outing, scoring one for beautiful bleakness and comfort in misery. Anyone into the more stylized, sumptuous side of doom metal, with just the right hint of modern elements and skillful songwriting dynamics, would do well to pick up "The Burning Halo" — followed by the rest of the band's discography — immediately.
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