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Witchery were never supposed to be a very serious band. All of their members had other, more significant, projects and the band took their cues from classic metal rather than competing with the contemporary scene. That was no obstacle to the band becoming a revered name in underground circles, largely due to the success of their first two albums at catching the distinct atmosphere of 80s Mercyful Fate and marrying it to the blitzkrieg assault of thrash metal, creating a fast-paced, melodic, and creepy shredfest that was always as fun as it was heavy and evil. The formula changed a little for the more varied 'Symphony for the Devil' and, after a five year absence, the band resurfaced with this, their fourth album. 'Don't Fear the Reaper' might appear at first glance to hark back to their early days (the opening track of the first album was, after all, called 'The Reaper'), though in fact it continues the progression away from thrash metal and into a more modern arena.
The sound of this album may be jarring to some previous Witchery fans, since the former style of speed metal riffing is all but gone and the band have dropped at least 20mph. The focus is still on guitars, but there is more focus now on the weight and atmosphere of the riffs, with several songs never reaching above mid-pace and choosing to groove instead. It's an odd choice, because Witchery had always been great at imbuing quick riffs with a unique sound - maybe that vaguely occult something that Mercyful Fate had - and staying sharp even when they were building the intensity. Over the band's long break, a spark seems to have disappeared that allowed the band to combine those elements: here we don't get a lot of flat out riffing, though are several deliberate attempts at creating unnerving sounds with melodies or little guitar parts, such as on the opening 'Stigmatized'. However, these parts often require the whole song to wind down for them to be inserted, which spoils momentum and results in a slightly too obvious atmosphere. Witchery had been a fantastic band for the lead guitars too, always ensuring that a solo maintained or enhanced the mood of a song, instead of merely being a chance for an exhibition or distraction. The departure of Richard Corpse may well have left a bigger gap than many anticipated, since it seems that his replacement Rille Rimfält - while technically sound - doesn't possess a similar signature style, which is regrettable, as it was one of the most distinctive features of the band.
If we get down to specifics for a moment, there's something that's gone slightly awry in the composition and tone department. Songs like 'Damned in Hell' and the aforementioned 'Stigmatized' suffer not from poor ideas or lame performances, but from a lack of spontaneity and bite in the mix. Both have riffs that should have sounded dramatic and powerful and actually do have that signature Witchery tint to them; however, I just never find myself getting into it thoroughly, nodding my head where I should be smashing the table and punching the walls. Everything is a little dry and forced, like it took a lot of effort to get back into Witchery mode and the band were left a little uninspired, without any flow to their songs.
The songs themselves aren't too bad, perhaps on a par with the mixed 'Symphony for the Devil', throwing in slower parts and instrumentals, plus a few truly face-ripping speed tunes. The cover of 'Immortal Death' is fastest and most brutal and doesn't fit as a result, sounding like an attempt to give the album some thrash and death credentials. 'Plague Rider' really does get the hang of things, opening on a riff that Slayer would be happy with nowadays, switching to one of the band's recognizable melodic riffs, then a crushing chord sequence comes in that would be bold enough for doom metal if it wasn't backed by double bass: that's just the introduction, and the rest of the song does well to keep up the intensity. Of the mid-paced numbers, 'Ashes' surprisingly incorporates keyboards to create a rather different atmosphere, while 'Crossfixation' and 'Styx' both take advantage of the broader guitar tone and their vivid imagery to stick in the mind. There are a few cuts here that seem to be extra (a couple of intros are inessential), which perhaps shows that the band realised they weren't quite up to scratch and needed to fill more space.
'Don't Fear the Reaper' isn't a bad album, it just doesn't find its feet or excel for more than a couple of songs. Those unfamiliar with Witchery will not mind the shift in the band's style, though might be left wondering why the band settled for such a style at this point in their career, since the songs here don't achieve a full spectrum of life - they don't quite take off. Mildly disappointing, though worth listening to some parts.
I understand a lot of people are not really fans of "Don't Fear the Reaper" because it represents a change in Witchery's sound. Instead of the raw and heavy black-oriented thrash, this record brings you a more modern and polished sound. I don't think it's bad, but the thing is: some songs are not all that, meaning you'll get tired after listening a few times. The technicality is awesome, the instruments are really in sync, but technique isn't everything. Some tracks have very cool riffs with an evil smell, but others are just heavy. "Cannonfodder" and "Immortal Death" are the best examples. Sure, they are heavy and fast but there's something missing, it feels like "it's just another track", you know? There's no substance, nothing underneath...
The drums and bass are my favorites (not to mention the cover!) in this release. Sharlee completely stands out and rocks your ears some crazy-ass heavy grooves! (Check out "Draw Blood", "Plague Rider" and "Styx"). Also, the drums are just heavy as hell with seriously fast and powerful beats ("Draw Blood" starts with a banging double pedal and "Plague Rider" comes with a pure thrash beat all the way to the very end)! Toxine's voice in this particular record is much more aggressive than their previous albums. The guitars aren't bad but unfortunately the riffs aren't quite the same...
However, I'd like to specifically talk about "Disturbing the Beast" and "The Wait of the Pyramids" because these are some seriously heavy intros that fit perfectly into this evil atmosphere. The drums and riffs composing them are just amazing!
Also, let me just add that "Plague Rider" is one of heaviest and catchiest thrash anthems I've heard so far. I recommend at least this song because it is, without a doubt, the best track in the entire album. Heavy, fast and aggressive mosh inducing craziness is the best way to describe this sound brought from the depths of hell that pumps my veins every time I listen to it. The way the track ends with the chorus is just epic! Give a whirl. You'll love it!
Overall, this record is not a bad one, it's a good change depending on how you look at it but it shows that Witchery were trying a more modern sound at the cost of the epic riffs they're known for. However, you should listen to this if you want a modern black/thrash sound. You'll like it! After all, this was one of the most influential records in my entire adolescence!
"Stigmatized"; "Draw Blood"; "Plague Rider"; "Damned in Hell" (with a Mercyful Fate-like solo in the beginning) and "Styx" will guarantee you a non-stop headbanging orgasm!
As Symphony for the Devil was such a letdown, it was in Witchery's best interest to lay low for a few years and see if the members could rekindle the black tickers within their hearts. Most of them were busy with other projects at the time, so this was not really a tall order, and when the band returned in 2006 for Don't Fear the Reaper, they did so with all of the members from the prior album, and on a new record label, Century Media, who at this time were already knee deep in trendy, shallow core bands, but still kept a healthy roster of stalwarts in reserve for when their flights of commercial fancy would come to a swift demise.
Lo, I placed this disc in my stereo with great apprehension, but two fingers crossed behind my spine. Surely they would not offer a repeat performance of the lacking Symphony, and return to the severe ass kicking the band was capable of prior to the 21st century, right? Absolutely not! In fact, this is even worse, an uninspiring slab featuring 45 minutes of phoned in, boring riffs and songs that are well below the ability of these five men. The production, of course, is brighter yet than Symphony for the Devil, and the band have incorporated a lot more of a slower, grooving edge which I might add is quite unwelcome, as are the increased use of pure death metal vocals (like in "Draw Blood") that do nothing positive towards the outcome.
Ironically, the album almost gets off to a promising start with the instrumental "Disturbing the Beast". Had it been followed with some kickass track, the slowly building atmospheric mosh boots of this intro might have forged an impact crater on the listener's ass, but "Stigmatized" is quite possibly the worst Witchery track ever recorded, led by a simplistic, juvenile black metal riff that we've heard a thousand times prior, only much faster, and some filler groove riffs which sound like the band just stole half a line from one of their Dead, Hot & Ready tracks to fill space. "Draw Blood" is not much better, a death/thrash tune which follows a similar formula. No surprises lurking around any corner, no killers stalking the night. No pummeling Jensen hook to bait you along! Adding a delay to Toxiene's vocals in "The Ritual" might occasionally make him sound like Ron Royce from Coroner, but it does not assist this otherwise boring groove song.
You've gotta dig pretty deeply into this album to find anything worth a damn. "Ashes" has a nice atmospheric keyboard line, which merges well into the guitars, but they are of themselves not all that interesting, so its up to Toxiene and some gang shouts to save the day. "Plague Rider" and "Damned in Hell" sound like a return to Symphony for the Devil level quality, which is to say...they are average at best, the latter using more of the band's Mercyful Fate-like grooves. Ditto for "Crossfixation". Speaking of the previous album, there is another Egyptian metal instrumental here, "The Wait of the Pyramids", and once again it's probably the best track on the entire album, with some wailing walls of solo that hover over its inbred mysticism. The dull hammering of "Immortal" is quickly forgotten, but "Cannonfodder" and "Styx" fare a little better with at least 1-2 decent riffs each. Another instrumental, "War Piece" is really just an excuse to flex a little blues breaks over some average, chugging pit metal, and
I can only theorize and speak the unspoken, if obvious thoughts that go into such a moot offering: 'Hey fellas, long time no see! I spent about 20 minutes going through some old tapes, and I believe I found at least a few dozen passable riffs we could slap onto a new album. Nothing special, mind you, but good enough for Century Media, and that means a paycheck, right? Head on in to the studio next week and lets churn this out like butter, after all, we've all got better things to do.' Even a cover, or rather 'update' of Satanic Slaughter's "Legion of Hades" can not save Don't Fear the Reaper from middling obscurity (can you really cover yourselves?), and really it presents only a case that Witchery needs a much larger fork stuck in them. Though he wouldn't flee the ranks for years after this, this would be Toxiene's final album with the band, before returning to play guitar in Seance. Can't say that I blame the guy!
This album starts off amazing, but weakens as it proceeds. The later songs aren't bad; they just don't feel complete. This album would have been unbelievable if all of its songs had been given as much attention as “Stigmatized,” which was probably the best track. The composition really makes the difference, as the best songs on this album stand out for their innovative progressions from kick-ass, thrashy riffs and back again. The worst songs deliver great riffs with hardly any progression or variation at all.
Throughout the album, though, the sound is good and the atmosphere is impressive. I particularly liked the vocals which temper the typical death grunt quite well. They aren’t as brutal, perhaps, as they could be, but they convey evil very well. Instrumentally, everything contributes nicely to the very heavy, chugging sound. Obviously, the band is quite proficient in that respect.
Perhaps, if the first few tracks hadn’t overshadowed the later ones, I would have given the album a higher rating, but I was disappointed that the album took a step down rather than a step up. Unfortunately, this is the only album by Witchery that I've managed to get a hold of, so I can’t really compare or contrast it with their other work. However, I highly recommend it on the merit of its atmosphere and riffs, not to mention a couple of incredible songs.
Previous Witchery albums, although certainly evil sounding in their own right, often maintained a morbid sense of humor about them that gave the impression the band didn’t always take themselves too seriously. Around five years has passed since the release of the group’s last studio effort, “Symphony For The Devil” and Witchery has grown a great deal more serious in the meantime. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” is easily the band’s darkest themed record yet.
As always, Tue Madsen makes the difference at the mixing desk and for the first time, the band has managed to come up with a record that you need not be a Witchery fan to appreciate out-of-hand. Seeking a musical middle ground in comparision to their past efforts, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” sees Witchery taking advantage of slower tempos at times but the primary shift in the band’s songwriting focus lies in the arrangements in particular, with the band making a conscious effort to shift between sounds from track to track, giving the album as a whole a diabolical yet defined character.
One of the most exciting aspects of the album is Witchery’s continued commitment to old school thrash metal riffs and rhythms. It is such fodder that creates the proverbial backbone of the group, with great attention being taken to meter out chugging riffs, leaving the band’s sound appearing right in the groove and completely unrushed. But although you’ll hear classic “…And Justice For All”-style Metallica rhythms in the opening instrumental, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” leans even moreso toward the the power grooving sounds of mid-nineties Metallica as well. Fans of the band expectsuch influences to crop up and during some instances, unsurprisingly, a bit of Slayer creeps in as well. Those expecting a classic Witchery sound should be pleased by “Stigmatized” (come on, the is “Am I Evil” at the end, guys) as well as tracks like “Plague Rider”, which is often distinctly more reminiscent of the group’s classic sound. A quick cover of “Legion Of Hades”, originally penned by Witchery precursors Satanic Slaughter strikes swiftly and proves to be deadly in its utter finality. “Ashes” proves gloomy and foreboding, with a hell-chant chorus from vocalist Toxine that resounds as being delightfully wicked.
Surely, the gem here is “The Ritual”, where the band’s music takes on a feeling similar to bassist Sharlee D’Angelo’s other breadwinner, Arch Enemy. Here, the group shows maturity and restraint in creating a near-perfect metal track whit a headbanging beat suitable for seperating skull from spine. Such highlights illustrate the amount of hard work and dedication that Witchery put into this record and further underline the fact that Witchery has taken their craft to entirely new levels. Join in the evil.