Listening to a new Crippled Black Phoenix record is a bit like unwrapping a present. Even if you have an idea what’s under the intricate ribbons and shiny paper, you can still get surprised. That’s partially by design. Though the the songs of British multi-instrumentalist Justin Greaves provide the group with a common thread, Crippled Black Phoenix have routinely changed lineups—and their sound has changed with them, at various times adorning the band’s tapestry of cinematic prog and postrock with threads of British folk, spaghetti western scores, psychedelia, doom metal, and cabaret. In a 2016 interview with Music Radar, Greaves said he didn’t even own a guitar until he launched Crippled Black Phoenix in 2004 (he’d spent years drumming in influential sludge and stoner bands, including Iron Monkey and Electric Wizard). Each of the group’s ambitious releases is a testament to what creativity can do when it doesn’t put itself in a box.
Crippled Black Phoenix prove that point again on the new Ellengæst, which they describe as a mini album even though it’s nearly an hour long. On the first day of recording, it came out that longtime guitarist Daniel Änghede, who also shared lead vocals, was leaving the group. Rather than halt production, they recruited an eclectic assembly of guest vocalists to pitch in. Each hefty song rolls into the next, pairing ornate, gothic, and sometimes mysterious music with lyrics that serve their messages straight up—including recurring themes of humanity’s cruel and self-destructive nature. On Ellengæst the transfixing voice of lyricist Belinda Kordic threads the songs together, whether she’s singing backup or lead (as she does on a cover of Vic Chesnutt’s “Everything I Say”). The album takes aim at leaders who sow chaos to tighten their own control (as on opener “House of Fools,” with lead vocals from Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh), but it’s less about despairing over that chaos and despotism and more about fighting back, even if only by embracing compassion and empathy over their opposites. On the hook-driven “Cry of Love,” vocalist Ryan Patterson (Coliseum, Fotocrime) sounds resigned to the numbness of heartbreak but hopeful that he’ll someday reconnect with his softer side. Kordic sings lead on “Lost,” a song about apathy and ignorance at the dawn of the apocalypse, and when Cavanagh joins in on the chorus they transform it into the kind of jet-fueled anthem that could turn the masses around. The record’s one true duet is the somber, proggy “In the Night,” sung by Kordic and Kristian “Gaahl” Espedal, which culminates with the resolute and elegiac refrain “Live to fight another day.” Sometimes surviving the darkness is a bigger “fuck you” than going extinct in a head-on battle. And the way Ellengæst ends—with a cover of the Bauhaus tune “She’s in Parties”—suggests that dancing can be an act of resistance. v