Cleveland, Ohio-based metal unit Chimaira has somehow soldiered on through non-stop personnel and label changes along their career timeline, with only frontman/co-founder Mark Hunter still remaining from the band's original lineup by the time their sixth album The Age of Hell dropped in 2011. While each new major incarnation has shed them quite a few fans (and occasionally gained others), constant upheaval has been the norm for this band over the past decade or so – and somehow, through it all, they've managed to seize upon a fairly consistent, recognizable groove. That core of deep, stacked, beat-locked riffs with electronic embellishments first got my attention through the track “Army of Me” on the Freddy vs. Jason companion CD (although the song wasn't in the film itself), which in turn led me to their 2003 album The Impossibility of Reason. They've essentially held true to that sound ever since, though their riffs and themes have become even darker, perhaps mirroring the recent turmoil going on within the band.
The band's new album Crown of Phantoms is the first to feature a completely reworked lineup – which includes members of groove/death metal unit Dååth (lead guitarist Emile Werstler, bassist Jeremy Creamer and keyboardist Sean Zatorsky), Dirge Within rhythm guitarist Matt Szlachta, and drummer Austin D’amond from Bleed the Sky. This infusion of new talent brings a fresh dynamic that draws a bit more on metalcore basics, although those had already started to surface in their self-titled 2005 album and never really went away. But in Chimaira's world (especially over the past few records), the groove is still king, and the union of riffs and drums is especially solid this time around. There's also a wider range of styles on display, with more shifts in tempo and texture, and a richer, denser-sounding production, which comes through strongest in tracks like "Kings of the Shadow World," and there's a stronger melodic thread in the opening cut "The Machine." Rest assured, there's still a lot of classic Chimaira elements to be found here: the album's initial single "All That's Left Is Blood" helped to set the aggressive tone, with Hunter bringing all the rage I've come to expect from his performance, and the companion video holds true to the song's theme – literally drenching the band in the red stuff.
While Hunter's lyrics and vocals are furious and intense as ever, Crown of Phantoms also boasts some breakout performances – particularly from D’amond, who lays down some of the band's tightest grooves I've heard in years, keeping the other instruments in perfect lock-step while adding some new textures and a little flash here and there. Werstler also brings some bold new colors to the palette with some impressive leads and intense solos, putting his own creative stamp on the sound while never grandstanding or detracting from the momentum. The old-school Chimaira sound continues to come through with the industrial weight of "Wrapped in Violence," and the rage factor reaches its peak with the appropriately-titled "I Despise" and "No Mercy," the latter of which became the second Phantoms music video.
While many long-time fans consider Chimaira's current incarnation too far removed from the band's legacy, I tried to ignore all that and bring no preconceived notions to my first listen... and I was ultimately impressed with the results. Crown of Phantoms doesn't come across as an attempt to clone the band's earlier successes, or even to re-invent the wheel as far as the band's signature sound is concerned. Instead, it stands up perfectly well as a complete project, and in many ways surpasses a lot of their more recent work in emotional intensity, production value and songwriting quality. Whether or not it represents the “real” Chimaira is irrelevant – this lineup has proven its worth as a rhythmic metal powerhouse.