Album Review: Chimaira – CROWN OF PHANTOMS

By Matt Albers

For music fans that aren’t in bands themselves, it’s easy to forget how hard it must be to keep a band together. Countless factors usually unseen by listeners are at work, such as the financial risks, travel expenses, production costs, and promotional relations. Any issues that are seen first and on the surface are those that fans most often find themselves concerned with and invested in. So when a band you know or love begins to lose key or long-lasting members, history usually dictates that their sound and songwriting may change or even suffer, leading to an ultimate breakup of the band. There are exceptions to this rule, however. And one of the most recent examples in metal is Chimaira.

Formed in Cleveland, OH in 1998, Chimaira endured their fair share of adversity throughout their career. The band released their first three full-length albums on Roadrunner Records, undergoing an evolution in the process. Their 2001 debut Pass Out Of Existence, while exhibiting the groove, industrial, and even sludge elements that have remained constants in their sound, was essentially a nu-metal album (a subgenre at the height of its movement at the time). Their second album, 2003’s The Impossibility Of Reason, has been considered a cornerstone of the then rising metalcore and New Wave Of American Metal movements. The release of this album marked the departure of long-time drummer Andols Herrick, who was replaced by Kevin Talley for their 2005 album Chimaira, only to re-join the band for their 2007 Ferret Records debut Resurrection, which is considered to be one of – if not the – strongest of the band’s albums.

It was after supporting their progressive and experimental 2009 album The Infection that Chimaira’s lineup troubles began to take a turn. After years of writing, recording and touring, the band would see the departure of bassist Jim LaMarca, keyboardist/synthesizer/backing vocalist Chris Spicuzza, and once again drummer Andols Herrick. In order to continue, the remaining members recruited musicians from two other metal bands: from Daath, guitarist Emil Werstler became Chimaira’s bassist and vocalist Sean Zatorsky stepped in behind the keys, electronics, and backing mic, while Bleed The Sky’s Austin D’Amond took over drum duties. This lineup would record Chimaira’s sixth album and debut on EOne Music, 2011’s The Age Of Hell, which maintained the band’s familiar sound, but unfortunately seemed to lack the drive and aggression the Chimaira was known for. This was due to the dying interest of rhythm guitarist Matt DeVries who, along with lead guitarist Rob Arnold, would ultimately leave the group following their annual hometown “Chimaira Christmas” show in December 2011. This left vocalist Mark Hunter as the only founding member.

One would think that Chimaira would officially disband after seeing so many members leave that were considered core to the structure and sound of the band. Chimaira could have followed suit of many of their predecessors and respectfully thrown in the towel in 2012. Instead, a determined (or stubborn, depending on how you look at it) Mark Hunter and the newest members decided to keep the modern metal beast known as Chimaira alive. To fill the voids (and understandably big shoes) of their two former guitarists, Emil Werstler moved to guitar duties – the instrument he’s much more well-known for – and passed on his original duties in Chimaira to fellow Daath band mate, bassist Jeremy Creamer. Rhythm guitar duties were then given to Dirge Within guitarist Matt Szlachta. With a full band lineup and a rejuvenated energy and spark to create heavy music, Chimaira released their seventh studio album and second on EOne, Crown Of Phantoms on August 31, 2013.

The band (and this album) are on EOne Music, but from this artwork you'd think it was released through Sumerian Records, eh?

 
The band – and this album – are on EOne Music, but from this artwork you’d think it was released through Sumerian Records, eh? (Artwork by Patrick Finegan)

Before even being able to discuss the music of Crown Of Phantoms, it’s important to understand the album’s significance in promotion and production. Through the advantages of social media platforms, Chimaira sought to remind their own fans of the significance of bands that write and release music. Using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, Chimaira offered the chance for fans to purchase Crown Of Phantoms by donating money to contribute to the album’s production. In return, not only did fans receive a special edition copy of the album featuring the bonus track “New Apocalypse,” a DVD with a “making of” album documentary, music videos and other material, as well as having their name printed in the album’s sleeve, fans could also receive different special perks depending on the amount of money they would contribute. These perks included anything from an advance digital download of the album including seven bonus tracks (demos, live recordings, remixes, and a cover of Soundgarden’s “Outshined”) to personalized messages from the members, to signed gear or merchandise, or even to opportunities to perform on stage with the band! With all of the effort put into the production and release of Crown Of Phantoms, the most important element to keep in mind on whether or not the album would be a success is the music itself. Even fans that had seen Chimaira perform with their new lineup – which, by the way, sound just as strong playing past material as their previous lineup(s) did (anyone who saw them headline Fubar in St. Louis [their first show of 2013] can attest to this) – may have feared that any new material would sound drastically different than the catalogue that they were already used to. Fortunately, while Crown Of Phantoms does stand out as a Chimaira album with its own unique sound and identity, it is still recognizable as an official release from the band.

Fans can rest assured that the crunchy groove, technical tightness, and brooding aggression that Chimaira has always exhibited is far from gone, but it is different than what it once was. With such a drastic change in personnel, a noticeable change is to be expected. But the newest members of Chimaira, working with Mark Hunter, were able to keep the familiar style and personality ultimately intact. From Crown Of Phantoms’ opening track “The Machine,” you can tell that new musicians are playing the instruments, and are doing so in their own style, but still making a conscience effort to bring themselves together to write and perform the way Chimaira always has. Emil Werstler’s technical precision known from Daath is evident throughout Crown Of Phantoms, but is presented in the rather virtuosic, almost rock band groove in which Rob Arnold always wrote. Austin D’Amond’s elaborate drumming, driven by unrelenting double-bass is very reminiscent of the best work by Andols Herrick. Even Sean Zatorsky’s use of keyboards and synthesized electronics on nearly every track stand out as strong as Chris Spicuzza’s strongest past contributions.

While there’s plenty to praise Crown Of Phantoms over, it’s unfortunately not Chimaira’s strongest album, leaving plenty on which to nitpick. No matter how many times you listen to the album, there are songs (fortunately, few) that never seem to get better. While “Kings Of The Shadow World” contains a guitar solo as impressive – if not more – as the many others on the album, the song itself feels like nothing but filler. As does the instrumental two and a half-minute “The Transmigration,” but thankfully redeems its own musicality when it perfectly transitions into the next song, the album’s title track “Crown Of Phantoms” (one of the albums strongest songs). While many of the album’s songs like “No Mercy,” “All That’s Left Is Blood,” “I Despise,” and “Spineless” succeed as throwbacks to Chimaira’s earliest fan favorite works both musically and lyrically, “Wrapped In Violence” fails on nearly all fronts. Driven by the keyboard and synthesized sound effects and containing easily the laziest melody, the most uninspired, un-thought-provoking, and basic (even stereotypical) lyrics on all of Crown Of Phantoms are found here, such as: “Fuck what you think; no, fuck everything! A middle finger will forever define us…” The sound of “Wrapped In Violence” is most reminiscent of the industrial/nu-metal style found on Pass Out Of Existence, which would explain why it sounds so out of place and stops the album’s momentum.

As previously mentioned, all the negatives of Crown Of Phantoms are simply nitpicks. The pros vastly outweigh the cons on this album and it’s worth picking up for even the most discerning metalhead. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s just about everything you want in an eclectic modern metal album, even if it has its own flaws – what doesn’t? – however slight or minimal. Crown Of Phantoms might not be the album most defining of Chimaira’s sound, but it could still be remembered as one of their strongest, if only for the fact that it earns appreciation as an effort retaining only one founding member. Even songs like “Plastic Wonderland” and “Love Soaked Death” push the boundaries of the band’s writing style, tone, and musicianship into a new direction. Despite the odds, Crown Of Phantoms proves to be a solid new beginning for Chimaira. So whether you’re already a fan or have never listened to them before, this is a good album to check out and even add to your collection. Look forward to the possibilities that may lie ahead for Chimaira at this point, because Crown Of Phantoms shows that the band itself is ready and excited for what the future holds…

Final Score: 3.75 out of 5 (B/B+)

Recommended If You Like: Fear Factory, Threat Signal, Mnemic, Soilwork, Slipknot

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