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Legions of the Deep, Arkham Witch's sophomore effort, is about as wildly inconsistent an album as a band could write. In one sense, it's incredibly varied, with Arkham sounding like three different witches throughout the entirety of the album. While this trio of sisters may have worked well for Shakespeare, I don't think the variety bodes well in the case of Arkham. For me, the band is best when they are echoing the Heavy Metal styling of bands like Running Wild, early 80's Sabbath or Manowar, influences which all seem to appear and disappear across the album. The second biggest influence is obviously that of Doom giants like Candlemass and Witchfinder General. With a couple thrashers tossed in, there are roughly three of each style of track. The thrashier numbers don't seem to work for Arkham or their Witches. While Legions of the Deep is in no means a dismal failure, it's by no means an immediate classic or contender for best of lists either.
The album's got excellent artwork by the always talented Jowita Kaminska, this time portraying gaunt looking citizens from some unnamed off-the-beaten-trail New England town staring down a squid-bat-gargoyle creature spawning off the local coast. The booklet is jam packed with expanded artwork revealing the full vista from which the cover artwork found itself cropped from. Snow giants, red haired witches and rats the size of Russian prison dogs gaze out at a distant aquapolis, glowing under a full moon's lunar luminescence. Band photos reveal a band that has a sense of humor, and just really loves the genres that they admit they steal from. There's no hard feelings or trying to be secretive about it either. They wear the stuff on their sleeves. Why wouldn't you though? It's also cool to look in a booklet and see local a locals like Argus and Overkill (obviously a ton of bands have been influenced by Overkill) represented.
The album really has four highlight songs with second song, "At the Mountains of Madness," being give or take depending on what you're really into but I really think it's a great track with nods to Pentagram. Opening track, "David Lund," is a hard hitting doomy cut with moments similar to Briton Rites' awesome For Mircalla which came out last year. Perhaps not as busy, the foundation of this song are memorable doom riffs. Iron Man's I have Returned could be another comparison. Vocalist Simon Iff? - I have no idea what the purpose of that question mark is, but apparently if you put it after your name it makes you mysterious or something - is a treat on this album as he utilizes a few different styles across Legions. On this track he sounds like Phil Swanson, best known for his work in Hour of 13, who also sang on that Briton Rites album while on "At the Mountains of Madness" he sounds more like a looser, more soulful and less vicious version of Metal Inquisitor's El Rojo. The first of the album's best three tracks appears three in. "Iron Shadows in the Moon," aside from having a really awesome title, is a great Sabbath-on-the-cusp-of-Dio-era track with easily memorable riffs, a patented bridge / refrain section and highlight solos. Originally I thought this is where the album would really start to pick up and be phenomenal, as all things were leading to increasingly quality tracks. Unfortunately the album's biggest clunker, "Infernal Machine," craps all over that possibility.
Just like "On a Horse Called Vengeance," which also employs sub par thrash tendencies and boring riffs, "Infernal Machine," is obnoxiously amateur sounding. I guess the band felt they needed a heavier, faster track or something but it's not necessarily faster by any means and the continuous pumping of the main riff, a riff that wouldn't be at odds fitting in on a Lamb of God album, just kills "Legions of the Deep's," momentum. Followed by the awesome Running Wild placeholder, "The Cloven Sea," is damn good fun, it's another shorter track and even the vocals are tilted to sound like Rolf. There is very little to hate about this track and just when I thought that "Infernal Machine," was a flop or a dud track, we get "On a Horse Called Vengeance." I think it's the seventh track that steals the bottle though as "Gods of Storm and Thunder," is a hard-rocking Accept flavored track with Deep Purple undertones that is sure to raise glasses to the ceilings in bars. Perhaps the chorus, which I really like, is used as a crutch a little too much, and perhaps the instrumental section in the middle is samey as the other tracks, but it's just a perfect mid-album bruiser.
I honestly don't get much out of the last three tracks. Granted title track "Legions of the Deep," sounds like pirates and being on the open sea which is perfect for the album and "Kult of Kutulu," has a lot of energy and grittiness and "We're From Keighley," is a cool home-crowd anthem all the tracks also have some flaws. "Kult," has a really dumb chorus that sounds like the Munster's theme song, Though not an inherently negative comment, "Kult" and "Keighley" both have a hardcore punk tendency. "Legions" has a sample thrown into the track about two minutes into the song from somewhere. It also has a sailor's song sung about a minute later with vocalist Iff? and drummer Emily Ningauble - strong across the whole album - pairing over sounds of waves to really hammer home the whole ocean / sea / exploration of things that can't be known themes going on across the album. The inclusion of an acoustic cover of The Lamp of Thoth's Blood on Satan's Claw fits well with the top-tier tracks on the album and implies the band is really at heart a Doom outfit.
While there are some real slamming Heavy Metal and Doom tracks here that would warrant getting this album, the five or six tracks that do little for me may lead to some second questioning. At the cost of importing this release for those of us in the USA, I doubt we'll see the band making inroads here for a while. I say dump the thrashier parts and focus on the Doom and traditional Metal tracks - they do them so well that it really is hard to explain why the band even goes that route as well. On an album that runs close to an hour's worth of material, leaving off the ten minutes of thrashy material would have created a much more consistent and enjoyable release, regardless of those that claim the tracks add variety or whatever. They don't show the album at their best. Thinking back, I was unimpressed by their track on Metal On Metal's compilation, "For Metal," which also took this thrashier vein. A track like "Iron Shadows," or "The Cloven Sea," appearing would far better represent the band.
Originally written for Contaminated Tones
One thing that never fails to grab my attention for albums is Lovecraft-inspired artwork. So of course the cover of the sophomore album from the U.K.'s Arkham Witch jumped out at me right away. Of course the name Arkham Witch also contains a Lovecraft reference, as do several of the song titles. So it was with great anticipation that I looked into this album.
Arkham Witch is a very traditional-sounding metal band combining 1980's style metal with doom metal. Oftentimes, the band sounds like a cross between faster-paced Reverend Bizarre and Iron Butterfly. Think about the Reverend Bizarre covering "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and that's probably an accurate representation of Arkham Witch's style.
This is a very entertaining and varied album with a lot of highlights. The album features some slower-paced and epic, plodding doom metal tracks (e.g. "David Lund"), some mid-paced, crunching stoner doom tracks (e.g. "Infernal Machine"), and some angrier, fast-paced tracks that border on thrash metal (e.g. "On a Horse Called Vengeance"). The variation in the individual tracks make this a highly interesting album. It is never boring and captures and holds attention. The album sounds like it would have made a terrific soundtrack to 1970's horror b-movies. And yes that is a compliment.
The instrumentation is well-done, with a heavy, crunchy sound to the riffs. The production is clear and allows all of the individual instruments to come out cleanly. Arkham Witch does a terrific job of catching the sound and feel of heavy metal in the late 1970's and early 1980's.
The only complaint that I have is with some of the spoken vocal lines. Particularly with the mostly forgettable "We're from Keighley". The opening line in that track is regrettable and mars an otherwise highly impressive album. But then I just rewind it to the rocking "On a Horse Called Vengeance" and all is forgiven.
Heavy/doom metal and Lovecraft's Mythos are birds of a feather, as we've seen through the ages in bands like Manilla Road/Hellwell and many others, so England's Arkham Witch are already in good hands with this choice of theme, and judging by what I'm hearing on this second full-length, they do right by the niche, painting morbid tales of unearthly horror through take-charge, traditional NWOBHM styled construction steeped in a deeper sense of underworld aesthetics. I heard traces of Saxon, Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar, Diamond Head and Blitzkrieg amidst the more funereal, psychedelic overtures, and the commanding vocals are like a hybrid of Biff Byford and Mark Shelton without teetering so far into worship territory that they lack a sense of distinction unto themselves.
I vaguely remember the band's debut On Crom's Mountain through Barbarian Wrath (this time out they've joined the Metal on Metal family), which had more of a sword & sorcery aesthetic mixed with Lovecraft, sort of like The Gates of Slumber, Cirith Ungol or Doomsword, but it didn't leave me much of an impression despite my instant attraction to the Robert E. Howard subject matter. Legions of the Deep seems altogether better managed, more ambitious, and at the same time a fraction cleaner in terms of its production. The record runs the gamut from epic, march-like grandeur (opener "David Lund") to just feel good stoner-infused mid pace rockers infused with airy, understated melodies ("At the Mountains of Madness"), to angrier anthems that even exhibit a mildly doom/thrash territory ("Infernal Machine", "On a Horse Called Vengeance"). Arkham Witch is not going to win an award for having the most eerie, evil vibes to their songwriting, and they're far from the crushingest of British doom exports ala Electric Wizard and company, but then that's not really the point, since the style they've gone for is of a far more archaic nature with an early 80s vibe.
Of particular note here is Simon Iff's? vocal performance, which is stately and regal but fully capable of either slightly picking up its range or applying a bit of necessary gravel to the more peeved cuts throughout the nigh on 60 minutes of content. It immediately drew my imagination towards scenes of bold adventurers in 19th or early 20th century explorer's societies getting ready to tackle the supernatural or the unknown. There are occasionally passages where the vocals are used more to recite poetry or narrative, and this can come across more cheesy and playful than was probably intended, but not to the point that you'll lose sight of the murky, tentacled doom end awaiting you. In fact, the only part where I laughed out loud was the intro to their self-referential "We're from Keighley" where the singer pronounces to the audience 'Eat a bowl of fuck/I came here to parteeee' but after that the song does rock my nethers off. The guitars are well defined tonally without being overpolished: muted, harsher riffs have a good crunch, the flow of chords is swarthy, and the melodies possess a natural, sad lilt to them. The bass is grooving', but doesn't stick it's neck out that often, and the drums rock along at a simplistic clip which is representative of the band's NWOBHM influences more than a psychotic display of musculature.
Use of organs or other instruments is quite minimal, and to be truthful I wouldn't have minded more of such atmospheric embellishments alongside the more primitive of guitar progressions, but overall I found Legions of the Deep to be a classy, grand, old school metal outing with a lot of sweet leads and charms to it despite any derivation innate to the general riffing patterns you'll hear so often. It balances both the more biting doom aesthetics well with the lighter, flashier British metal feel I quite miss (until I dive into my old records and tapes), and really if you've a vested interested in most of the bands I listed in the first two 'graphs, you'll want to give it a whirl. It's not entirely memorable, and a case could be made that Lovecraft themes work better with more distinctly 'evil' riffing and disturbing atmosphere. But, hey, it takes all kinds, and if nothing else, Legions of the Deep rocks, and I'll not quite look at a dish of calamari the same again.