August 7th sees the release of Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape (read our thoughts on the album here), Black Crown Initiate’s long-awaited follow up to 2016’s Selves We Cannot Forgive. Ahead of its unleashing unto the world, we caught up with vocalist James Dorton for a conversation about the album, his feelings towards it, and to look back on some tour memories.
“I feel good man, I’m ready,” is the first thought Dorton shares as we discuss the run-up to the album’s release. “We finished this record in December and it’s been the theme of my whole life. We put so much effort into this one and invested so much of ourselves in it – it’s a big piece of us and I feel ready for people to hear it now. It’s almost like it’s surreal as we let these new songs trickle out.”
The album’s title comes out in the lyrics of the album’s second track “Son of War,” with Dorton building, “the name comes from Andy Thomas, he writes all the lyrics, and for him, they’re a very personal matter. The album as a whole represents a period of time in our lives that was really very difficult, and he and I went through some pretty terrible stuff at the same time, just a lot of very personal stuff. We’ve since moved from that portion of our lives, and I think it as a whole represents that very dark period, but with that perspective of looking back on it. I know that sounds vague, and it is, but there is a certain element of not wanting to attach too much meaning to (the lyrics) or the album title from the outset, we want people to form their own attachment and interpretation.”
When questioned about the album’s potential cathartic qualities, given the reflection upon darker times referenced within it, there’s a lot of emotion and personal investment riding in Violent Portraits… for Dorton and the band. “There is a lot of painful memories associated with it, and making it was also a very difficult process – it left a mark. We really wanted to leave a piece of ourselves in this particular record so there’s almost like a PTSD sort of reaction to it for me when I hear it, just because it embodies so much of that (darkness). There may be a certain level of catharsis in that, but it’s not all good feelings or that it’s adding something positive, it’s hard to describe. It is a way to wrap it all in a package at least, for me, and to step forward into the future.”
With regards to the future live performances of these tracks with a lot of feeling riding on them, there is still an upbeat outlook to getting these most recent creations out there. “I feel like I am very much ready to do that for one. It’s going to be kind of a new era, if and when we get to (play them). With everything going on right now none of us are too sure with how the live thing is going to go, I think we are acting as if it will because we have to; we don’t want to be unprepared if we are allowed to go back on the road anytime soon. A lot of the decisions that we make in our day to day lives is to make these songs happen in a live setting. I hope we get to, and I want to play the record front to back.”
On the topic of playing an album from start to finish live, the first exposure I had to Black Crown Initiate was last year on tour supporting Rivers of Nihil who were doing exactly that with their 2018 magnum opus Where Owls Know My Name. “We’re from the same town as those guys and we grew up together since we were kids. We’re a much younger band than they are for sure, but we’ve played in other bands around them and it’s been a kind of intertwined relationship since we were young. We’ve always been pretty close with them, and inspired by them for sure, particularly in their work ethic and their approach. When we toured with them in Europe and the United Kingdom that was a very special experience, it was one of the best tours I’ve ever done. It was a life coming full circle sort of moment because we’ve known them for so long. It’s cool that when you’ve grown up together as kids playing in basements, playing in little dive bars, to playing your songs in Europe for people together. I would say generally speaking they inspire what we do, and seeing them play that album front to back and having it be so well received was really cool, I was very proud of them for making that record and I’m glad it was received so well and it did so well.”
“In terms of standout memories from that tour there’s a lot. London was one of the coolest shows I’ve ever played in my life. It was a sold-out show and I just loved being in the United Kingdom, Bristol, Birmingham, it was a very special experience for me to be there and the shows there went incredibly well. London especially was a very special show for me because it was a huge venue (The Dome, Tufnell Park) and it was sold out (to its 500-person capacity). Some of our old friends sold out a venue in London, which was a cool moment.”
Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape marks Black Crown Initiate’s first release on Century Media Records, and indeed their first on a specialist metal label. “Century Media are really cool. One, when I was a kid I used to buy CDs out of their catalogue so it was pretty cool to have achieved that. Two, they have just been a pleasure to work with from the get-go. They have supported us totally really from the get-go and have done an extremely good job with marketing the record; they’ve believed in us creatively and we feel very fortunate in that regard that we have their faith and their support. All the people have been very communicative and just wonderful. I don’t have a single complaint to be honest, not one. With this record, when we did it, it’s the best thing I’ve ever made personally, of anything, ever. And I feel like it’s getting the support from a label which that body of work deserves.”
More recently the band have found themselves spread across multiple parts of the U.S., however for the writing of the album they weren’t as spread out at the beginning of the writing process. “We took our time with this one, we didn’t even know if the band would get back together at that point, so there was a lack of pressure (not having a label at the time), there was nothing pushing us to write a record, we just knew we had to. At the time we were not geographically separated, but then towards the end of it what we did was get together on Skype or Facetime and write stuff on our own then send it to each other. We’d write stuff using TabIt so it came together pretty fluidly. The biggest hurdle is waiting for inspiration to strike, but once it does the guys have all the capability in the world.”
In terms of Dorton’s contribution to the album (as the harsh vocalist), he’s quick to highlight the complementary relationship between the creativity of Thomas as the main writer and his own performances. “The way the vocals work, I don’t actually write my vocals, Andy (Thomas) writes everything. To be honest, some of the vocals were written very last minute, there were some days where we’d be on the way to the studio and Andy would write the lyrics on the way there. They would just fly out of him. Then when we got there, he’d do a whisper track (a spoken version of the lyrics in place) for me, then I would decide how I would deliver it on the spot. I made sure that I was really very well-rehearsed before I went in, and he gives me a lot of creative control from that perspective. I’m pretty content to have my creative input be in the performance, and then especially in a live setting (as well). We have a pretty organic situation.”
One of the key qualities throughout Violent Portraits… is the vocal delivery from Dorton, feeling more like a performance and conveying of expression as opposed to more monotone screams which can be found elsewhere. There’s almost a distinct character performance in each of the tracks on the album. “Vocals to me; I never want to stop getting better and I approach it very conceptually. I have a goal that I’m aiming towards with each record, and I don’t always hit that goal with each record or it doesn’t end up looking the way that I think it’ll look, but oftentimes it does and with this album, in particular, I was very pleased with how the vocals came out. I was very ready for the performance, I rehearsed on my own a lot for months and I want to be the most powerful and controlled; wielding (my vocals) the best that I can.”
On the topic of diction and ensuring that the lyrics of Thomas can be understood in his delivery, Dorton reflects on his own performance as well as where he sees others in the metal scene. “It’s very hard to enunciate, and I’ve always loved when harsh vocalists do, it’s hard to say the word when you’re doing that. I think that if you’re not very much a master of what you’re doing it can be difficult to make the sounds you want to make whilst also enunciating very well. It can also break your concentration, so I think it takes a lot of skill to enunciate very well. It’s also not to say that everyone should, or to discount vocalists who don’t really… some of my favourite vocalists don’t necessarily focus on enunciation, but I do think that it is a sign of mastery of the craft.”
In terms of parts of the album which stand out, there are a couple of highlights: “I really love my performance in ‘Invitation,’ and also the following track ‘Son of War.’ I don’t think I did a bad job in any of the other tracks, but I feel like those are landmark achievements for me as a vocalist. I feel like the former is a pretty good display of the amount of power I’m personally capable of, whether that’s a lot I don’t know, but I threw out my muscles in my head making that first scream and had weird vertigo! And like I said, I spent a lot of time preparing for it too, I was very well-rehearsed, my voice was very ready and I still tried to drive it up to 11 with that song. Also with ‘Son of War,’ that was where I displayed the control I spoke of where I was able to enunciate very well which, at least for me, that was a big accomplishment to make something you could understand so well.”
Throughout Black Crown Initiate’s discography, and with Violent Portraits… being no exception, harsh vocals can be used quite sparingly in places, with either instrumental passages or the buttery-smooth cleans of Andy Thomas pushed to the fore instead. We discussed how this feels when performing live as a frontman without something to perform for particular parts of the set: “It’s a nice break (when on stage), it allows me to take a rest before I come back out and scream my little heart out. I tend to leave stage for those periods when the options available, and I feel like I get mixed responses to that, but otherwise, I’m just up there as a cheerleader for two minutes and think instead I’ll just leave, it’s fine. I try not to stay out there as a hype man, for me that’s definitely the right thing to do, but if I feel like it, I’ll stay out there. If I feel inspired to do it; I just do whatever I want and that usually plays out. For example, if I want to dump whisky on the crowd I’ll do that, if I want to leave I’ll do that, but it depends. Most often though if there’s huge breaks I’ll be gone. It also allows everyone to focus on everyone else for a minute too, rather than just have me sitting there demanding attention.”
Black Crown Initiate’s history of touring partners has some illustrious names on it from some of death metal’s royalty, with Behemoth, Cattle Decapitation and Dying Fetus to name a few, and thinking of his dream lineup to tour with in the future, Dorton has a few varying thoughts. “If we could do another tour with Rivers (of Nihil) like we did before that would be amazing. Also last year we toured with Inferi and Warforged and I really loved touring with those. If we could take that whole group of people out that’d be a lot of fun, that’s a pretty good combination of people and of bands in general. As far as really huge bands go, bands which are markedly bigger than we are, I think it’d be a lot of fun to tour with Gojira or Meshuggah, Tool or Mastodon would be fun and I’d really love to tour with one of those bands. Behemoth was a lot of fun to tour with at the time as well so I would totally do that again. Who knows if it will happen again, but those were all pretty cool.”
In terms of the future plans for the band, there’s a pragmatic yet hopeful approach to what comes next. “I think we’re going to get all our ducks in a row financially and otherwise the best we can, so that way (we’re ready). I feel like with COVID-19 no one really knows what to do so when a city shuts down, or a state shuts down, there’s a lot which happens in that where it’s clearly just the governor wanting to do something so they can say they tried, but they don’t necessarily know what’s really best in the moment. I feel like the big thing right now is that venues can’t stay open through all this, they’re going to go out of business, and once they do there’s a lot less places to play. In addition to that, the laws will change, and COVID is affecting a given place will vary wildly. I don’t know man, I feel like there’s going to be so many hoops to jump through, so if we go from the UK to Spain it’ll be so different across those two places. I think a cure for this is going to have to be found before anybody’s allowed to go anywhere.”
“I saw somewhere that the music industry has to adjust, like we did in the year 2000 when downloading first started to happen, that we need to prepare for the live show to become a more digital experience. My thoughts are just ‘aw man,’ if that happens we’re just going to be living in The Matrix. If you can make concerts replaceable that’s going to be a huge indicator, if you can just give someone an Oculus and they can just go to a concert digitally and that’s good enough, they don’t have to leave the safety of that little bubble, then that’s it and that’s going to be pretty destructive to the whole industry for sure.” Despite the strides taken with live-streaming concerts and digital performances (such as Trivium’s), there’s still a gap to the live experience in volume and atmosphere that it’s currently quite safe to say won’t be replicated with technology immediately.
Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape is by far the pinnacle of Black Crown Initiate’s discography to date, which is a comment on its outstanding quality rather than a slight on their previous work. Dorton, Thomas and the others in the band should rightly feel an immense sense of pride in it as a release, in the emotion and investment that has gone into it, and here’s sincerely hoping that it gets the chance to be performed live front-to-back in the way that such an exceptional progressive metal release deserves.