by Phil Freeman
It should have been pretty easy for Glenn Danzig to age with dignity. His first band, the Misfits, were old before their time, horror-obsessed ’50s juvenile delinquents dressed up like punk-rock goons; when they disintegrated, he started Samhain, a compellingly weird Goth-metal hybrid whose decent songs were smothered by terrible production. Finally, in the late ’80s, he formed Danzig, and hit the big time. The band’s AC/DC-on-steroids blooze-doom was ideally suited to Rick Rubin‘s dry and heavy production style, and their first four albums (and the half-studio/half-live Thrall: Demonsweatlive) rung about as many changes as possible on their formula, incorporating acoustic blues, ’50s-style ballads, Doors-y jazz-blues excursions, and chugging metal. On Thrall: Demonsweatlive, they even acknowledged Glenn’s obvious vocal debt to Elvis Presley, delivering a crushing version of “Trouble.”
After parting ways with his bandmates and Rubin, though, Danzig (the man, the band, and the brand) went astray. The next two albums were weak attempts to go industrial, even feeding the vocals through distortion, while the two that followed those were more conventionally metallic, but still lacked memorable songs or any real energy. The first Danzig album since the first four to seem worthy of the name was 2010’s Deth Red Sabaoth. Recorded with Prong guitarist Tommy Victor and Type O Negative drummer Johnny Kelly, and Glenn himself contributing guitar, bass, piano, and even drums (on “Black Candy”), it was a stripped-down, pummeling effort. Unfortunately, it was also his last record for five years, as he spent a lot of time on the road, hosting his own touring package, reuniting Samhain, and even picking up the Misfits name for a couple of highly remunerative festival gigs. When he finally returned to the studio, it was to make 2015’s covers album, Skeletons…and we will never speak of that record again. It’s irredeemable.
His brand-new album Black Laden Crown, though? It’s really, really good. (Get it from Amazon.) Unfortunately, it’s got two strikes against it from the start: It’s called Black Laden Crown, a phrase which means nothing (the first two lines of the album are “I will lay you down/On a black laden crown,” which clarifies nothing), and the cover art is…well, it’s a cartoon of a woman bleeding from her scalp and her eyes, wearing a nippled breastplate while a bat sinks its talons into her cleavage, and holding mystical fire in both her outstretched hands. It’s a painting by professional comic artist Simon Bisley, but it looks like a marginally talented high school student drew it; it’s bad enough that I could actually imagine it costing him sales. (Amazingly, the back cover is even worse.)
Get past that stuff, though. Deth Red Sabaoth was a dumb title, too, but the music on that album was confident and powerful. And Black Laden Crown is better in every way. It’s the best album he’s made since Danzig 4p in 1994.
The opening title track is a slow-crawling doom-blues song with groaning background vocals that sound like the chants at an occult ritual. Tommy Victor‘s guitar sounds more like original Danzig guitarist John Christ than ever before, with none of the squealing pinch harmonics that he slathered all over DRS. The majority of the songs are in a similar vein—almost dirges at times (the most notable exception is the hard-charging “But a Nightmare”), they allow Danzig to howl like an aging wolf. His voice is occasionally hoarse, but most of the time he makes it work for him; he sounds beaten down, but in a dramatically satisfying way. On “Skulls & Daisies,” he sounds more like Jim Morrison than he ever has before. His weakest vocal performance is on “Devil on Hwy 9,” which is too bad, because it’s a solid song otherwise; the main riff sounds borrowed from Metallica‘s cover of Killing Joke‘s “The Wait,” and Joey Castillo‘s drums are massive.
Castillo is one of five drummers on the record; other tracks feature Johnny Kelly, Dirk Verbeuren of Soilwork, or Karl Rosqvist, and Danzig himself gets behind the kit on three (“Eyes Ripping Fire,” “Last Ride,” and “Skulls & Daisies”). His minimal, no-fills timekeeping is perfect, keeping the focus on the riffs, which are alternately fuzzed-out or crushingly heavy, and the vocals. He also plays piano here and there, most notably on the album-closing “Pull the Sun,” which also features some serious shredding from Victor. Danzig worked on this album for three years beginning in 2014, and the devotion to craft shows on every one of its nine songs. He’s playing to his strengths throughout, prioritizing power over experimentation and inhabiting his persona in a way that keeps it from ever feeling cartoonish. Glenn Danzig has always taken himself and his art very seriously, but the actual output hasn’t always measured up. On Black Laden Crown, every song is good to great; it’s a mature artistic statement, and a damn solid one. Danzig-the-man is going to be 62 in a couple of weeks, so the idea that this might be the last Danzig-the-band album isn’t that crazy. If so, it’s a hell of a final bow, as powerful as Black Sabbath‘s 13, Heaven and Hell‘s The Devil You Know, or Motörhead‘s Bad Magic.