Black Crown Initiate – New Beginnings

Sunday, 19th July 2020

If you go back a few years, Black Crown Initiate was a band that was on the tip of my metal fans’ tongues. Rapidly building buzz from their standout Song of the Crippled Bull EP that increased over the course of two full-length albums – the band’s progressive and extreme mix of genres was nothing short of impressive. But things just seemed to vanish after 2016, until last year some new music started surfacing.

Now in 2020, Black Crown Initiate is back once again, and the time away has been kind to them in the long run. Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape signifies a renewed effort that reaches new musical highs, with a new label (Century Media) behind them. We spoke with guitarist/vocalist Andy Thomas, to get his take on what they have been up to, some insight into Violent Portraits, and a look back towards Song of the Crippled Bull.

Dead Rhetoric: It’s been four years since Selves We Cannot Forgive. What have you and the band been up to?

Andy Thomas: For a while there, we weren’t up to much of anything – after we got back from Europe in 2016. In a lot of ways, the wheels kind of fell off the band. Just personal stuff, label stuff, and all kinds of stuff [laughs]. I guess you could call it a hiatus, but we didn’t really know if we would be a band again. Over time, Nick [Shaw] and I started to get together, just for fun really, because we weren’t doing anything at all. We didn’t have a team anymore, we didn’t have a label.

We didn’t really know what we were doing it for, other than the same reason that we always have – the fun of it. The next thing we knew, we recorded some demos. That was around when you heard the “Years of Frigid Light” track we put out. That was a demo we recorded. We did stuff like that. There was some label interest, and Century Media came out on top. It’s wild to be on Century Media because the majority of my cd collection I got growing up was from CM Distro. It’s cool.

Dead Rhetoric: So Century Media just put the best offer forward?

Thomas: Yeah, we had a few other offers, and they were good. They were good labels, too. The thing about Century Media is that you gauge things by how much enthusiasm they show, and Century Media showed the most enthusiasm and they were the most proactive in signing us. I tend to give merit to stuff like that.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you say about the current line-up? I see that Ethan McKenna goes back quite a ways with the band.

Thomas: Ethan was actually an old guitar student of mine. He came to me, god he was young, and he was like, “Will you teach me Iron Maiden riffs?” So I was like, sure. So he started practicing, and it was like 11 hours a day. All of a sudden, it was like, “I can’t teach you anymore. There’s nothing else I can show you.” When we started the project up, in 2012 I guess, we actually asked Ethan to be in the band first, but his life kind of dictated that he couldn’t. He was traveling abroad and doing cool stuff that a young man does. So it didn’t happen at the time. I have been playing guitar with Ethan for a long time. In fact, “Holy Silence” was a song that Ethan, Nick, and I wrote back in 2008 I think. I never wrote any lyrics or anything, but the music, the way it was done in its entirety, was written in 2008 by the three of us.

We’ve always had good chemistry. As I’ve said before, it’s kind of cool to have Ethan, because the chemistry we have with him is kind of similar to what we had with Rick [Stelzpflug], our original guitarist. So it doesn’t feel different in that regard. The most important thing is that we get along very well on a personal level. I think, oftentimes, when you get into a more professional environment, however, you want to define that, it supersedes whether or not you get along. I think, ultimately, maybe that works for some bands but for us, it really doesn’t. I think it’s really important to have killer players that you literally don’t mind traveling the world with. We have that now.

Dead Rhetoric: I wanted to talk about a few songs in particular off the new album. Could you discuss “Bellow” and James [Dorton]’s throat singing.

Thomas: I have always appreciated that stuff. I actually own albums with Tibetan Monks chanting and stuff. I actually like things like that. I am fascinated with what the human voice can do in that regard. If you have ever heard James speak, he has an anatomically and impossibly low voice. He has a pretty wild and freakish voice, and he can do some crazy stuff with it.

In that particular track, he figured out a way to do the polyphonic chanting at the same time as he is screaming. I have never heard that before – what you hear is one take. It’s just him. He’s screaming and having multiple notes come out at the same time. I thought it was awesome that he could do that and we thought about putting it in the middle of the album. I don’t know if you want to call it an intermission but topically, the album gets pretty heavy after that. I thought it might be a nice thought, for people to maybe take some deep breaths.

Dead Rhetoric: I thought it was in a cool little space there. It really stands out.

Thomas: It’s kind of weird to do something like that because part of you thinks that you don’t hear stuff like that a lot. But then, the fact that you don’t hear stuff like that a lot makes me want to do it even more.

Dead Rhetoric: The other thing that pops out in my mind is the connection between “Invitation” and “He is the Path” as the opening and ending tracks. Was there a certain thought process there?

Thomas: Yeah, the album is pretty conceptually cyclical as a lot of things that I do are. The beginning of the album is sort of an invitation/invocation of the desired end. The end, the last piece of the album, is the ultimate realization that the desired point leads, basically, to the beginning of the cycle all over again. There’s no escaping. The title of the album suggests that as well.

Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned the heaviness of the lyrics. Are there any specifics that you can go into?

Thomas: Loosely, the concept of the album is accountability. No matter who we want to blame about anything in your own life, ultimately it’s your responsibility to fix whatever is wrong. Obviously, without getting too deeply into the subject matter of the album, which I don’t really like to do, that’s the main thing. At the end of the day, if your parents or significant other or anyone hurts you – it’s not to diminish the fact that it hurts, but ultimately, your baggage is yours to carry. I think you see a lot of that in the world right now. People want to blame others for their problems, and there’s this cyclical ball of shit that we are passing around. I think a lot of people, myself included, could stand to stop and look at what they are doing/not doing.

Dead Rhetoric: You guys have never shied away from longer songs – how do you know when a track is complete?

Thomas: You know, that’s tough. When you gravitate towards longer songs, you have a tendency, at least in my experience, to end up with situations where you listen back later on and say, “Man, maybe I didn’t need to make this that long.” We really made a conscious effort with this album, to be mindful and learn lessons from our previous albums and say, even if we liked a certain part, maybe it doesn’t need to repeat.

Even though we still write longer songs, and this album has our longest songs on it with the exception of “Belie the Machine” off of Selves We Cannot Forgive. But pound for pound, I think this album has the longest songs on it but it also has the least amount of fat. It’s kind of a balance. But to answer your question, knowing when a song is done, it just kind of happens. I don’t know how to describe it. Songs, if you listen, they kind of tell you what they need. It’s kind of cliché, but it’s still true.

Dead Rhetoric: The line-up has had some changes, but the core has been you, Nick, and James. How important is the three of you working together when it comes to Black Crown Initiate?

Thomas: At this point, the three of us are just such a family that I think that without the three of us – we are so different and it’s like any other brotherhood where you fight and get on each other’s nerves – but we are so invested in this in different ways. It’s hard to imagine the band without any of us. In fact, truth be told, Nick quit the band after we came back from Europe in 2016. We weren’t getting along very well. I gave it a few months and I took him out and had a beer. I said that we have differences and that I really missed writing music with him. He said he missed writing music with me too, and here we are today. So I can’t really imagine the band without those two knuckleheads.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s something that stands out for you in your time with Black Crown Initiate?

Thomas: There’s a few for me. I’m sure that if you asked each of us, you’d get different answers. But being in Guitar World magazine was really cool. I have every issue of Guitar World magazine since 1993 or something. That was a really cool moment for me because it was a magazine that I grew up just devouring – to have it show up at your house with Black Sabbath on the cover, and our name on the cover between Tony and Geezer’s legs – it was pretty damn cool! Playing Euroblast Festival in Cologne, Germany. It was the biggest crowd we’ve ever played to. It wasn’t a huge crowd, maybe 1500 people, but it was big for us. We played a really good show, right before Enslaved. That stands out as a really fun day. The whole European tour with Rivers of Nihil was really a great time too.

Dead Rhetoric: Looking back, how do you feel that the buzz surrounding Song of the Crippled Bull affected the band?

Thomas: The EP is a really strange thing to look back on. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of this album in the way that it was written. Like I was saying before, when Nick and I were putting this album together, there wasn’t a goal. There wasn’t anything on the horizon. So the EP was just something I came up with while drunk in my parents’ basement. I got to a point in my life, I was like 24-25 – now I’m almost 34…yikes! But I decided that I was going to pay out of my pocket to record in a professional studio, just to say that I did it once, and then I was going to get a job in a factory or something because music wasn’t panning out. I did that, we put the EP out on Bandcamp and it started to pick up. Next thing we knew, we were on tour with Behemoth.

So I think the EP is really everything to us. I think why this new album is so close to my heart, is that it feels a lot like that. It’s a new beginning in a lot of ways. When you get in the cycle – you have to put an album out. It’s all good and it’s your job to make a damn good album. But there’s something different to be said about just doing it on your own time and for yourself. This album, Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape, reminds me a lot of Song of the Crippled Bull. Not necessarily musically, but in the intent that it was composed with. But yeah, the EP started our career, I love that thing!

Dead Rhetoric: Any plans once things get back to normal in the world?

Thomas: We want to tour as much as we can. To say, get back to the way things used to be, I’m not sure if it’s even possible, but I certainly hope so. We want to play and make loud bang-bang noises on stage with our friends. I can’t wait to get back to that, and hopefully, we get to soon. For now, we are just promoting the album as much as we can, and come up with creative ways to get content out. That’s really all you have right now, right? Content. But we hope to get back out on the road and drink some beers with friends.

Dead Rhetoric: Are you doing any online content before it comes out or no?

Thomas: We are doing lyric videos and we are working on another animated video for a song before the album comes out. I have to get creative because I have to do some at-home concert stuff. I have to figure out how I want to present that, without having the full band – we all live so far from each other and not all of us have the capacity to record well. We have to figure all that out. he plus side is that we do live in an age where any of that is possible. Without the technology we have right now, I can’t imagine living in the world without it. But at the same time, maybe we wouldn’t be in the world we live in now – looking at it negatively, but I’m probably thinking too much. I’m prone to that.

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