Ever since they smashed onto the scene with their 2020 debut Impious Viam, following up on the more quietly well-received EP Humanity Will Echo Out, Night Crowned have presented an almost ideal example of symphonic/melodic blackened death. Take a template of symphonic, subtle synth-accented black metal, and add a bunch of catchy melodies, well-pitched dramatic compositions, and that uniquely Swedish death metal flair, and you’ve got Night Crowned. But the group are more than that; they have a distinctive sound that has only strengthened over the years, and Tales continues this trend. To say I was baffled to find that not only had none of my fellow Melvins claimed it, but that our venerable establishment has never even covered Night Crowned before, would be an understatement. I thusly snatched it in haste before it sank into the mire. And with a history of excellent music to look back on, my main question was not whether Tales would be good, but how good it would be.
Well here come the spoilers: Tales is great. A ridiculously infectious, grin-inducing, sensation of spooky, electrifying blackened death that is serious enough to be compelling, and fun enough to make you want to howl along, and swoop across that stormy sky like a malevolent spirit. With an absolute corker of an opener, “De Namnlösa” setting things off with racing speed and urgent refrain, the listener is more than ready to hear the ensuing stories and nightmares that play out. And so by the time closer “Old Tales” comes round, echoing that first melody and lyrically tying the record’s stories together until the final declaration of “We are Night Crowned damned to haut this forsaken earth,” the most likely reaction is an emphatic “hell yeah,” and a rapid re-press of the play button. Each track follows a figure from Scandinavian mythology and so has an individual flavor whilst remaining identifiably Night Crowned in the folky use of string and horn, evocative sprinkles of chimes, and grand, surging themes. The band return to their Impious Viam approach of using both English and Swedish lyrics, granting the latter songs a gnarly sense of authenticity, but still allowing one to follow along, as, for example, the “Nattramn” bewails their curse (“On blackened wings…I fly, I fly until dawn”).
Tales is carried by its catchy and abundant melodies, each wrapped up in well-structured, engaging compositions. And thanks to the dynamic way individual tracks play out, the whole album flows very well and ends before you know it. This is all down to the way that Night Crowned set up their musical themes. Sometimes they lean into Scandi melodeath à la Insomnium (“She Comes at Night,” “Flickan Som Försvann”). Sometimes they play up the more aggressive of melodic black (“Nattramn,” “Lupus Luna”). Sometimes, they dive straight into the urgent symphonic blackened death that characterizes the pinnacle of their sound (“De Namnlösa,” “Strandvaskarens Hymn”). Whichever the case, these songs elegantly build an atmosphere of intrigue with their use of traditional instrumentation, playfulness with circus-esque tumbling scales (“Old Tales”), and excitement in gradually building layers. A soft melody is teased, the drums roll over and pick up the pace, the soundscape is stripped back to a shuffle of percussion, singing, resonant notes, rising synths, the tremolos and blastbeats come in with full force, and the screams reach fever pitch. From the recurring flurry that characterizes “De Namnlösa,” to the clean-sung mournful waves of “Loviatar;” the yearning melody that burst out in barrages of tripping percussion in “Strandvaskarens Hymn,” to the beautiful longing of “Lupus Luna,” as fading female vocals1 precipitate a rolling build into waves of dramatic ascending, descending guitar.
Do I have any complaints about Tales? Not really. On top of the engaging compositions and wonderfully mournful, urgent melodies, this thing sounds fantastic. Clear as a cloudless night sky with a DR of 10. As implied above, the 43 minutes pass by in a flash, but it’s a flash you experience rather than one down to anodyne background noise. The songs each grip and force you to listen, and the record is remarkably consistent, making it nigh impossible to pick individual songs as ‘definitely better than others.’
If you like Night Crowned, you’re going to love this. But even if you don’t, Tales is an ideal starting point, as it’s (probably) the best of their career. To take words from vocalist K. Romlin’s mouth, “come and see the unseen world around us.”