This is one of those albums which helped define my adolescence. It was the first time I'd heard doom. It was the first time songs had actually scared me! This might sound quaint in these days of sicko extremity and blacker-than-thou blackness in blackest of black metal (!) but back in the late 80s, only a handful of bands had the ability to give you the heebie-jeebies in their music. But there was a genuinely eerie quality to Candlemass's songwriting and performances on this album which set the band apart from other purveyors of supposedly evil/Satanic metal. Candlemass eschewed the gore and deliberate attempts to offend that characterized Slayer. They were also less fixated on horror movie theatricality than King Diamond. Candlemass, to me, can be mentioned in the same breath as Celtic Frost in terms of their scariness. But CF were much more radical, leftfield, experimental, avant garde. Candlemass were simpler; more obvious, perhaps.
On Ancient Dreams, they deal with fairly stereotypical lyrical themes of dark fantasy and demons and devils and etc on the whole. But the songs are delivered with such panache, such skill, such emotion and such a fantastic ear for melody that you'll forgive them that. And, anyway, Epistle No 81 is a completely unexpected and unusual song. It's a mourner's lament, a heart-rending ode to mortality which has its origins in the imagination of 18th century Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman. It's an oft-overlooked doom metal classic. But then, I'd say every single song on the album is a classic in its own right. You'll weep at the crushing, monumental beauty of the riffs the band come up with on song after song. Rifftastic highlights include Darkness in Paradise, Incarnation of Evil, Ancient Dreams and Mirror, Mirror.
Sacrilege though it might be to say it, I actually prefer the Black Sabbath Medley that closes Ancient Dreams to the originals it distils so perfectly! And I haven't even mentioned Messiah Marcolin's phenomenal voice yet! He was truly one of the greatest frontmen metal has ever seen with a highly distinctive sound that is simultaneously so pleasing to the ears and powerful. Wonderful as his performances on the other Candlemass albums might be, Ancient Dreams represents the pinnacle of his career. It is also the band's best work to date.
It would be really hard for me to give a Candlemass album any less than 5 stars, but I did consider giving 'Ancient Dreams' 4. Hopefully, by the end of this review my reasoning will be explained.
However, I'd like to start with the album cover, a copy of Thomas Cole's painting 'Youth'. That cover is a lot for any band to live up to, isn't it? There's a gorgeous, primal countryside with a foreboding mountain lurking at the horizon, above which we can see a temple in the sky - the celestial city. In the foreground is a tiny boat with two figures reaching towards that distant and unearthly emblem, straining to touch the unreachable.
And yet, that scene describes Candlemass so exactly. The band sound, in a completely non-denominational sense, utterly godly as they stretch a musical finger towards the perfect city in the sky that, as we can tell from the fact they are playing doom metal, they know they will never reach. There is a hopeless crushing quality to the music and lyrics that in no way undermines the joyous celebration that those epic riffs seem to create: the vastness of the sound and vision is matched only by the emptiness of the reality, because without that mirage on the cover, it is only a man alone in a boat and without those sublime ideas Candlemass is only five Swedes with instruments and dodgy haircuts (seriously, Google Leif Edling's mullet).
'Ancient Dreams' might contain the most perfectly realised songs of Candlemass's career. 'Mirror Mirror' is a VERY strong opener, but is superseded three times as the best song on the album. 'Darkness in Paradise' has a wickedly haunting vocal line and the main riff sounds like a salute to angels; 'Bearer of Pain' is lyrically very involving and has a great solo; 'Ancient Dreams' really does sound like the sky opening up and the mysteries of the universe being revealed, even though the theme is concerning the futility of hope and the eternal longing that won't go away. Aside from those exquisite moments there is a good general mixture of signature Candlemass elements. Slower songs are well balanced alongside faster riffs and sections, the leads are usually creative and satisfying and Messiah gives perhaps his best performance with plenty of nuance alongside his famous power.
My complaints, however, are directed at 'Incarnation of Evil' and 'Black Sabbath Medley'. Sad to say but 'Incarnation of Evil' does not really sound like a Candlemass song, nor does it sound like a song by any other band I want to listen to. The performance is flat, too slow and lifeless and the riffs and vocal lines are very forgettable, not to mention the horrible cliche of the lyrics. 'Black Sabbath Medley' is not particularly bad, I just don't find it a helpful addition to this version of the album - I would prefer to just have a copy on disc 2 alongside the live tracks.
Now, to explain my 5 star rating. If those two songs mentioned above were removed from the release, 'Ancient Dreams' would contain 7 songs and be 45 minutes long, which is plenty of time for a doom metal album, especially when the songs are as well developed as they are here. Of those 45 minutes, there is ONE fault that I can find, which is the high note that Messiah hits in the chorus of 'Bearer of Pain'. That gets on my tits, but everything else is sublime. Everything else makes me hope that I could touch that castle in the sky.