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Riff-finder General - 95%

failsafeman, April 28th, 2010

Girls had been disappearing from the village for months, and reports said they were always comely; far too comely to be coincidence, far too many to be the work of one of the old ones. They were much more careful. No, this was a new vampire, still drunk with the power of his recent conversion. This juvenile sort was the easiest, for they still thought themselves invincible. The young girl struggled against the rope that bound her to the tree, unhappy her townsfolk had chosen her to assist me as bait; sometimes, beauty could be inconvenient. The vampire would never touch her, and I had assured her of that fact, but still she struggled. So much the better. As I waited, the moon rose over the graveyard, throwing sharp-edged shadows of leafless trees across the snow like grasping, skeletal hands. I had chosen tonight precisely because it was clear and the moon was full. Night-sight might be the least ostentatious of a vampire's dark gifts, but it could also be one of the most dangerous, when traps and surprise were essential to their defeat, as they so often were. Tonight at least I could see well.

Soon I heard the sound I had been waiting for: the low scrape of the great stone door grating open down in the crypt. The same door had foiled my attempts to open it during the day, precipitating the current situation. My grip tightened around the rope, and I held my breath. From the inky blackness of the crypt a large black cat emerged. It sat innocently before its threshold, and observed the bound girl with yellow eyes. The girl held the cat's attention such that it didn't notice me at all.

This hesitation was all I needed; I yanked the rope, and the net that had been buried in the snow sprung up around the yowling cat. Suddenly it was not a cat at all, but a robed figure, struggling in a net he would never leave alive. It was woven from such things that vampires could not break. I swung my axe, striking the creature full across the forehead; vampire or no, he felt that, and his struggles grew feeble. I could have disposed of him then and there, but I had questions. Hellspawn of this sort did not spring ex nihilo. I chewed some garlic and kicked the creature a few times for good measure. It shrieked and turned to look at me with flashing eyes, and I almost dropped my axe; it was a woman, and a beautiful one at that, pale and smooth as the newly-fallen snow around us. Even after my axe-blow her forehead was none the worse for wear. But there was nothing beautiful about her expression.

"Greetings, whore of Satan," I said.

"I will tear you limb from limb and feast upon your steaming flesh!" I spat full in her face, and she recoiled as if struck; there was garlic in that saliva.

"You are in my power now, and I can make your end swift and painless or rather less so, depending on how you answer me." She made a comment about my dearly departed mother, but I ignored it. "Who is your master?"

"The devil is my master, and I revel in his worship! I have devoured many in his name, and will continue to devour many more long after you are dead and gone."

"I speak of your Earthly master. Whom do you serve? Who turned you into a slave of the night?" At this she fell silent, her face relaxing into a mask, though her eyes still shone with suppressed rage.

"You may appear old, but the vigor of youth flows strong within you." Her voice was sultry now, like fine velvet. "Have you mistaken me for someone else? I am but a simple widow, who was mourning her husband down in the crypt. Surely that is no crime? I am so very lonely." Her charms were clumsy, but I could not deny the allure of her form as she tried to make herself seem vulnerable and appealing. I chewed another clove and leered obscenely at her. She faltered a little, confronted by my yellowed teeth and foul breath.

"You haven't the stomach for the kind of company I would give you," I said. "But save your breath, I have been doing this work for a long time, and your charms are meant for younger men...or women." She flushed at this, and looked away. This natural response was more beautiful by far than her artifice. "I ask you again: who is your master?" But she had closed herself up, sulking like a sullen child. I felt a twinge of pity that one so young had fallen, but this did not weaken my resolve. If she would not tell me willingly, I had methods at my disposal that could convince her.

First I freed the terrified girl who was still bound to the tree, and without a word she raced home. I shrugged; I took my thanks in coin, not words. Then I went back to my equipment, and switched it on. It hummed with power as it sprung to life, and the very air felt electric. My captive watched me with wide eyes, showing real fear for the first time. They always thought immortality would last forever. I readied my axe, and played a mid-paced riff of my own invention; the stack of Marshall amps took that riff and multiplied it a thousand fold, until it shook the very Earth. The vampire wailed, pressed to the ground beneath the weight of my heavy riffs.

"Who is your master? Where can I find him?" I changed tempo, opting for a slow, punishing plod. It was appropriate, as her doom was nigh. The air vibrated, and even I had trouble breathing as the graveyard became stuffy and oppressive. Everything appeared blurry, and I heard her bones gradually crack with agonizingly prolonged deliberation. To a lesser extent I could feel the weight as well, but I was toughened by years of listening to British doom at maximum volume. Still, her master's hold was strong, even now preventing her from telling me what I wanted to know; but she would break before the day did. I played a devastating counterpoint, and grinned.

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Yes folks, there is no bullshit here, no beating around the bush; from the second you press play, For Mircalla bludgeons you about the head with Brit-flavored riffs. Black Sabbath with a side of Witchfinder General's energy and a dash of Pagan Altar's atmosphere all dressed up in a guitar tone dripping with grease is the recipe on display here, and what a recipe it is! I gained weight just listening to it. This is an album for people who say doom has to be slow, because it's anything but. "Carmilla", the opener, is downright brisk until the bridge. Just goes to show that doom is a state of mind, baby. Thanks to mastermind Howie Bentley's characteristic dedication to his subject matter, the album is simply drenched in occult and gothic atmosphere. The greater part of the songs revolve explicitly around Carmilla, a gothic vampire novella originally published in 1872 - significantly predating and in fact influencing Bram Stoker's iconic novel. As such the songs bring to mind moonlit rituals, graveyards at midnight, and nocturnal predators that lust for the blood of men. Basically what I was trying to convey in my little scene above. Faggy Twilight types need not apply, we've got lesbian vampires from 1872 instead. Yes, really, read Carmilla. ...you're probably reading the Wikipedia article, you lazy fuck.

Before I get into THE RIFFS, THE MONSTROUS RIFFS, I will talk about the other elements first. We've got the inimitable Phil Swanson on vocals, and as I was already a fan from his work with Hour of 13, I slid right into his style like an old sock. We won't see him winning American Idol anytime soon, no, but he hails from the same "weird but effective" school as Mark Shelton and especially Terry Jones. No, not that Terry Jones, I mean the singer from Pagan Altar. In fact Swanson accounts for a lot of the comparisons to that band, with a similar sort of nasal tone that brings to mind a priest of Satan wailing his praises to the dark lord. He's excellent throughout; fans will be satisfied, newcomers will become fans. "Karnstein Castle" however is notable in that the vocals are handled by Howie himself, and his deep, sepulchral intonation again will not win any talent shows but fits the atmosphere of the song specifically. It contrasts well with Swanson's higher nasal tenor, and I hope Howie sings on a song or two for their next album. He even busts out a bit of King Diamond-esque falsetto! I love it!

Corbin "the" King handles percussion, and he's refreshingly reserved and traditional; big open beats with oldschool no-frill fills are what we get, and as expected he rides the cymbal a lot - but not too much. Bentley handles bass as well as guitar duties, and quite admirably; his lines and fills remind me of Geezer Butler, especially on "Vampire Hunter, 1600".

But of course the real star here is, you guessed it, DA RIFFS. They're these big chunky meaty things that plod and slop out of your speakers like all the best parts of "Children of the Grave" and "Into the Void" and "Wheels of Confusion" put together, with perhaps some of the cohesion heard from bands that came later like Witchfinder General and maybe even Desolation Angels. Any innovation here comes in the form of refinement and development on the original themes. No "Changes" here, folks, and in this case that's a very good thing. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. I could point to this or that riff as examples of really good ones, but honestly, they're ALL of a supreme quality that it wouldn't be doing the rest justice to single a few out. Just listen to any one of them and pretend I mentioned it here. Probably the greatest strength of the songwriting and riffcraft in particular is Howie's ability to take long songs made up of long riffs and make them gripping, exciting even, not letting you get bored for even a second. The shortest song on here is 6:38, with most being much longer, so that's quite a feat. The riffs never overstay their welcome, either; while a lot of traditional doom bands seem so in love with their own riffs that they are unwilling (or unable) to let them go, Bentley leaves us wishing we'd heard that riff a few more times, until we realize the riff he changed to is fucking awesome too. The length of the "call/response" is often doubled as well, making for long, interesting phrases. Usually you've got just a 1-2-1-2 sort of riff, but instead on this album we've got 1-2-1-3-1-2-1-3 a lot of the time, with 2 being an incomplete resolution and 3 being a complete one. Even though the difference between 2 and 3 might not be large, it leaves the riff feeling much bigger and more interesting, which gives them the longer lifespan needed for our attention to survive on the longer songs. The final trick in Howie's bag is tempo and pacing shifts; too often bands will write long songs just like short ones, but with more riffs. Unfortunately that just doesn't work. Each song on For Mircalla however goes through numerous sections of various speeds, building and releasing tension as they go in a masterful fashion. Reverend Bizarre & pals, take note.

The one element here that really points in a modern direction is the guitar solos. Howie is absolutely talented, in fact maybe too talented; occasionally I can't help but feel they're a little complex for the style on display here. He's usually tasteful, like on "Karnstein Castle" (I love the way it ends abruptly), but on "The Right Hand of Doom" for example his shredding borders on being too much, considering this isn't Cauldron Born we're listening to. After all, Iommi's lead guitar work on the first four Sabbath albums was pretty bad, from a technical standpoint. All told though it's a pretty limp-wristed criticism, since even the worst offenders are still good, only they fail to mesh as well as they could. Full disclosure: my name appears in the acknowledgements section of the liner notes to For Mircalla, but Howie didn't pay me to write this, I swear!

This is the best oldschool doom album I've heard yet. No, no caveats. The best. Yes, including the actual oldschool doom it’s based on. As awesome as Volume 1 and Volume 4 may be, they suffer from the same problems many pioneers do; that being they don't really know where the hell they're going yet. Lewis & Clark didn't exactly make the best time to the Pacific coast, nor did Bach invent baroque. Compared to good modern bands playing in the oldschool style, such as Iron Man or Rising Dust, Briton Rites still come out ahead. They draw together the strands of the traditional doom period and bring it closer to its ultimate maturity than ever before. Although they don't really introduce any new forms, they enrich the prevailing British style while simultaneously revitalizing and codifying it. Don't be surprised if you hear more bands in this style popping up like toadstools, and I'll be right pissed off if Briton Rites go the way of Cauldron Born; I demand nothing less than a long and illustrious career in which For Mircalla is but the first step.

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It was just before dawn when she finally broke; I saw it in her eyes. I could tell how powerful the master was by how long it took to break one of his thralls, and this thrall's master was very powerful indeed. His compulsion had been strong within her. Now her bones were broken in countless places, her skin bruised and bleeding all over, but a vampire could not die from such things, no matter how much it might want to. She raised a mangled, trembling hand, and pointed. I looked and saw Karnstein Castle looming above the village, perched on the edge of a cliff, wreathed in the mist of morning. I stopped playing, and her hand fell back. I could have left her for the sun, but instead I plunged the neck of my guitar deep into her heart. As blood welled up out of her mouth, she thanked me, and died. I sat on a headstone smoking my pipe and watched the dawn break, flesh pink. If her master were truly the lord of the castle as I feared, the road ahead would be difficult indeed.