I really miss all those gothic metal bands who formed in the latter half of the nineties with a duelling beauty and the beast vocal approach, usually a clean female voice and a harsh male voice, the former a toss up between ethereal and operatic and the latter a death growl. Most of them seemed to sign with Napalm Records and they released some of my favourite albums of all time, such as Tristania's World of Glass. Well, times have moved on and female fronted metal nowadays tends to mean some variety of symphonic metal, albeit with a notable number of exceptions. Fortunately Draconian never quit or massively changed their sound and I like this album a lot.
The female voice here belongs to Heike Langhans, who joined in 2012 to replace Lisa Johansson. She's perfect for this style, her voice leaning much more towards ethereal than operatic but without any of the frailty that ethereal often suggests. She's ethereal because she wants to be rather than because of necessity and the undercurrent of power means that she holds her own throughout. The male voice is Anders Jacobsson's, as it has been since Draconian was founded in 1994, and his growl has a warmth to it that's rather engaging. He wants to duet or converse with Langhans's voice, not eat her. Yeah, it's a harsh voice but it's not an evil one.
Perhaps part of that is that, while Draconian are often described as gothic doom/death, there's really not a lot of death here outside of Jacobsson's voice. Sure, the lineage clearly goes back to bands like My Dying Bride and Anathema, but they've moved firmly into gothic doom. This is slow stuff and it's heavy and full of melancholy but, even when Jacobsson has the lead, it rarely enters death territory. Some songs, like The Sacrificial Flame, have that extra darkness that doom/death tends to find, and it can't be denied that, when The Sethian heavies up, there's death metal for sure, Jacobsson's vocals let loose and the drums sped up considerably, but these are exceptions not the rule.
The album works on a scale, the heaviest sections of The Sethian all the way over at death metal but a song like Burial Fields at the opposite end, built out of atmosphere and ethereal female vocals with a clean male narrator also entering the fray. It can't really be called an interlude to separate the halves of the album as it's four and a half minutes long and it's vocal throughout. It's obviously a song of its own, but with a nod to post-punk or new wave bands like early Dead Can Dance or maybe Shriekback. I should add that The Sethian actually continues in that post-punk vein until the point where it heavies up.
It's a generous album, its ten tracks running over an hour, but it's never boring because of how widely the band explore that scale. Sure, most of it is slow and heavy, but the tempo varies throughout and a primary feature is the alternation between vocals, with Langhans and Jacobsson rarely singing at the same time, handing off between themselves like they're passing a baton. Notably, the intensity of the music doesn't necessarily change at the same time. There are points where Langhans sings over more intense music and others where Jacobsson sings in more delicate sections.
There are points where they both sing at the same time and I particularly enjoy those. Sometimes it's simultaneous lines, like on Sleepwalkers and Moon over Sabaoth, where it enrichens the already rich music behind them. There's some glorious decoration too; I particularly like the vocalised melodies in Moon over Saboath that Langhans provides behind Jacobsson's lead. They really elevate that song, as Jacobsson's chanting elevates The Sacrificial Flame.
I've talked way too much about the vocals, but it's hard to avoid them. I'd still enjoy Draconian if they fired both vocalists and went completely instrumental (which is not going to and shouldn't happen). I simply feel that the band behind them is mostly creating an environment for those vocals to play in. I should note that, while the lyrics are written by the vocalists, the music nowadays is written by Johan Ericson, originally the band's drummer but their lead guitarist since 2002. It seems like much of it is there either to provide a texture or to punctuate points for emphasis.
I liked this immediately but it's a nice grower of an album. None of the songs particularly leap out as highlights, though I think the strongest material is at the heart of the album, maybe from Moon over Sabaoth to Claw Marks on the Throne, but none of them are disposable either; even at an hour, all of them have their place. Now, I really ought to check out the previous album, Sovran, in 2015, the debut of Langhans with Draconian.