(Pure Steel 2017)
Talented multi-instrumentalist Walter Grosse has been making high-quality albums under the name Crom for a decade now. Far from a “band” in the conventional sense, Crom is essentially a one-man project, with Grosse writing, recording and playing almost everything on all the albums. The only exceptions on When Northmen Die are that drums are played by Seraph; two guests add bits of vocals, choirs and lead guitars; and the bonus track is a cover song (by Old Man’s Child, of all people). Don’t know about you, but I tend to be leery about “solo” bands because one guy working alone often has neither enough ideas nor enough quality control to capture the best songs, performances and arrangements possible. Crom has always been an exception to that rule (along with the likes of High Spirits and Ironflame). I found the German’s previous albums, Vengeance (2008) and Of Love and Death (2011), to be enthralling, captivating listens, with Grosse being a wellspring of endless creativity and talent. The same is true of When Northmen Die, a labor of love that Grosse wrote and recorded over a six-year period spanning from 2011 to 2017.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, it is a challenging (and largely futile) exercise to pigeonhole Crom’s music into a narrow category. Undoubtedly, Crom’s biggest influence/inspiration is Viking-era Bathory, circa Twilight of the Gods, as evidenced by the somber moods, epic arrangements, swelling choirs, and atmospheric grandeur throughout. But When Northmen Die is much more versatile than that. Opener “Behold the Lights” is pure, heart-pumping Euro power metal. The high-energy tracks are juxtaposed against delicate acoustic-dominated pieces like “Dear Father” and “Rain.” Elsewhere, “Betrayal” and “I’m with You” flirt with dramatic, spoken-word theatrics. All of these aspects of Crom’s sound are expertly constructed and performed, and the sense of dynamics, of ebb and flow, ensures that the 68-minute running time never feels labored or boring. To these ears, though, Crom is at its most magnificent on the grand, epic, Viking metal pieces like “Shields of Gold, ” “Sentenced to Death” and the breathtaking, nine-minute “When Northmen Die.”
For all of its diversity, When Northmen Die feels surprisingly cohesive, held together by Grosse’s distinctive and simply beautiful melodies, his clear and emotional voice (only occasionally dipping into harsh realms), and the prevailing feeling of melancholy. Why so sad? In the liner notes, Grosse dedicates this album “to the great memory of my fallen hero Walter Grosse (senior).” So he lost his father. With that realization, the lyrics, cover art, concept, everything suddenly makes sense. See “All Alone,” where Grosse sings, “Don’t mourn the lifetime that we’ve spent / I’ve found my destiny and peace / My son, now thou shall be king.” Then there’s “Dear Father,” with the heartbreaking line, “Father’s coming home.” Or “I’m with You,” which begins, “Now that I’m gone / You still must be strong.” You get the picture. (I understand that Grosse also recorded a version of KISS’s “World Without Heroes” for this album, but it’s not included on my slipcase, limited Pure Steel CD. Too bad, as this song would be an ideal complement to the themes presented.) The lyrics and delivery feel so heartfelt that I can only surmise that When Northmen Die was therapeutic for Grosse in processing and channeling his own grief from a deeply personal loss. His ability to tap into that genuine emotion is what gives When Northmen Die its power and its magic. There’s nothing contrived or affected about it. Lest you reach the conclusion that this must be a very depressing album to listen to, let me hasten to add that’s not the case at all. It feels very uplifting and majestic, despite the vibe of melancholia. Speaking for myself, When Northmen Die gives me a sense of peace and happiness every time. Yes, there is sadness in the world, but there is also beauty and majesty and this record exudes both.
Crom is not for everyone, and I think Grosse wouldn’t have it any other way. When Northmen Die is the kind of album that will be revered by some, and unappreciated/ignored by many. Count me unequivocally in the former category. If epic Viking metal with acoustic flourishes, plaintive vocals, gorgeous melodies and an overriding atmosphere of sadness and loss sounds like it might appeal to you, then investigate Crom without delay. The shields of gold are waiting to reward the brave … Finally, I understand from a recent social media post that Grosse has assembled a live band to bring Crom’s music to the stage in the relatively near future and is soliciting fan input for what songs should be included in the setlist. Oh, how I would love to see that someday.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~