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Swedish 4-piece Withchgrave's 2011 debut EP was a firm statement of intent laying out their style of charmingly sloppy Blackened Heavy Metal and looking back to the review of it in WAR ON ALL FRONTS #1 I remember a sense that the future was going to be very exciting as far as this band was concerned. At last the band have returned with they debut full length album, but I fear my anticipation has created a level impossible for this album to live up to. The winning formula from the EP has been retained, even refined and added to, and Witchgrave have done everything I expected them too- all except shatter my expectations it seems.
On “Raising Hell” Sven Nilsson kicks it off with a drumbeat torn straight from the Philthy Phil Taylor playbook while frontman Joakim Norberg puts on his best Cronos snarl for the vocals and the music hurtles along like a primitive ramshackle cart, yet conversely boasting some excellent lead work from the guitar pairing of Slingblade's Tobbe Ander and Antichrist's Gabriel Forslund. This is Witchgrave in a nutshell- A riotous punch-up of Motörhead, Tank and Venom in a fashion so primitive that it goes right to the edge of the realm of Black/Thrash, just about kept in check by the Iron Maiden/Cloven Hoof dual guitar work that keeps this rooted in the early 80's. The atmospheric similarities to countrymen Portrait are reinforced on “The Apparition” by the addition of some King Diamond-styled vocals but aside from that Witchgrave have not altered their plan of attack.
The problem then is not a case of style, as this will still certainly appeal to fans of contemporaries like Midnight, Speedwolf and Cruel Force, but it is those points of comparison that highlight the biggest trouble here. Simply put, the standard for this style is so high these days that without the memorable song factor any release will get lost in the mass of vying bands. With the EP there was a definite sense that Witchgrave had elbowed themselves straight to the top of the pile, but here it feels like the songwriting quality has actually taken a step back. Both by their own standard and by their peers this album feels like a bit of a disappointment.
It gets better with multiple listens, but really only “Seduced By The Dark” gives that initial rush and instantaneous infectiousness that the EP tracks like “The Devil's Night” and “Beg For Mercy” had. There are other memorable choruses, but the fact that on “Motorcycle Killer” the band go down the Thor/Helvetets Port route of intentional daftness says a lot. Witchgrave seem to have unfortunately gone from being a band of immediacy and simple-minded spontaneity to being more style than substance. On the EP everything felt so natural and free-flowing, whereas here touches like the clipping vocals on “The Last Supper” feel almost carefully orchestrated. I still think that Witchgrave have the potential to deliver that genre-classic album that they seemed destined to write 2 years ago, but this is certainly not it. [5/10]
From WAR ON ALL FRONTS A.D. 2013 zine- www.facebook.com/waronallfronts
Traditional 80s-style metal has been relatively big business lately, displacing the so-called ‘thrash revival’ of a few years ago (and likely to be forgotten about just as quickly as the new bands sink or swim) in the zeitgeist as the place where things are happening.
As with any sort of movement there is a great variance in the quality of product being doled out from band to band, but generally the thing they have in common is that you know what you’re hearing straight away. It's 80s metal with 21st century production values - usually charming and most probably well-meant but at the same time often lacking that feeling of authenticity and character.
Witchgrave play things a little differently. What with the scummy cover art, the distant, reverby recording quality, the band members who look like they’ve slept in their stage clothes for 4 days and the densely packed 8-song/31-minute playing time, it would be an easy mistake to confuse this full-length debut for a forgotten 80s obscurity.
The difference is that it doesn’t feel like an intentional throwback to an older style, but more like Witchgrave have just collectively woken up from a 25 year coma in the same sweaty codpieces and are getting straight back to business.
All well and good, but how are the tunes? Well, just great, thanks. While still largely influenced by the NWOBHM, Witchgrave forego the more obvious Iron Maiden-derived route and feel most obviously like the offspring of Venom and their ilk, not least due to Joakim Norberg’s throaty, Cronos-like growls and the humorously schlocky cod-Satanic lyrics.
Generally the arrangements are very pared-down, focusing only on getting from A to B with minimal fuss by means of a storming chorus. There is still plenty of melody to be found, mostly in form of soaring guitar harmonies, but the main focus is on the scuzzy proto-thrash riffs and the relentless aggressive tempo. Some unusual moaning cleaner vocals also crop up from time to time that are more mindful of a young Tom Warrior and there is even some charmingly amateurish King Diamond aping on “The apparition”.
I suppose at the end of the day looking for differences between Witchgrave and their more polished contemporaries is splitting hairs somewhat, but for fans of more lo-fi 80s classics this debut should prove to be a grubby delight as it positively crackles with deviant energy. Cronos, Warrior, Shermann and the like haven’t been delivering the goods in these terms for many a year now, so these upstarts are as entitled as anyone to try their best to pick up the mantle.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)