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If Satan Is Your God... - 98%

CHAIRTHROWER, January 31st, 2018
Written based on this version: 2005, CD, Castle Music (Reissue, 25th Anniversary Expanded Edition, Remastered)

“Nobody else can see you the same way as myself
Fly high and touch the sky, you're the angel I adore
If only you could feel for me that I feel for you
Why do you ignore me, angel, why can't I go with you?

You're an angel witch! (x4)”

Such is the unforgettable opening verse and chorus to Angel Witch’s 1980 self-titled debut, for all intents and purposes, the Londoners' shining moment and ultimate claim to fame – alongside the quintessential Iron Maiden and Judas Priest – as a premier new wave of British heavy metal pioneer amongst innumerable acts (the majority of which eventually faded into obscurity, but not without a few making amazing comebacks). Personally, it was Lars Ulrich’s NWOBHM ’79 Re-revisited compilation highlight and namesake classic which permitted me to gloriously unearth the genre’s treasure trove of long-lost and forgotten bands such as Budgie, Gaskin, Traitor’s Gate, Witchfynde and Vardis for instance; to be sure, the list goes on forever – it’s a testament really to how huge the scene was back then, as well as its tremendous influence on the metal World for years to come. Actually, the movement never died out but still proliferates to this day!

Right from the start, “Angel Witch” proper gripped me in its succubus-like talons with its penetrating neo-classical guitar intro and climatically sliding lead harmony – in fact, it ranks up there with Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills”, and Metallica “Master of Puppets” as ubiquitous metal recognition while constituting guitar parts I honed until my fingers bled (back when I still foolishly indulged rather petulant whims of self-ascribed guitar Godliness!). Founder and front man Kevin Heybourne’s authentic sounding and youthful, British accented mid-range vocals are also what heavily endeared me to the band. What’s more, they uncannily exude a most poignant sense of despair without falling prey to goofy thespian antics, all the while remaining effortlessly discernible – always a plus in my book. While some tracks possess a rambunctious, punk-ish flair (say, “Extermination Day”), others develop incrementally right up to their freewheeling, drawn-out solo sections or wistfully shuffling cadence - namely, "White Witch", which features a mellow, cleanly plucked bridge followed by a tortuously restrained solo making for ideal practice chops. "Sorcerers" plays out in a mournful, "Children of the Damned" fashion, with its subtly gripping guitar progression and foreboding escarpment whilst “Angel of Death”’s sludgy pace represents an ominous precursor to doom metal, imbued as it is by Hogg's background clanging and Heybourne's despondently malefic demeanor.

What strikes me most about this eponymous release – aside from Heybourne’s intensely piercing, melodic leads – is its old school, lowbrow level of production, very similar to those of fellow pseudo-Sabbath Britons Salem and Witchfinder General, which places a lot of emphasis on Kevin “Skids” Riddle’s thumping, at times high wire bass lines. These often go off on a tangent as he does his own neat little thing, whether it’s behind Heybourne’s dextrous jumble of fluid guitar riffs i.e. the entirety of “Flight Nineteen”, a track more than likely pertaining to the U.S. Navy's five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers which vanished in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 (with a bit of extra-terrestrial involvement thrown in for good measure), or of their own accord, such as on the bojangling T-Rex/Marc Bolan evoking rocker “Sweet Danger”. Dave Hogg’s drums, for their part, perfectly fit the bill as they’re not too loud in the mix or overly vigorous; they sound very natural and unforced, while at times - notably on the sordid boogie which is "Gorgon" - his snare thwacks in a similar manner as the drummer’s from the highly auspicious Ivory Tiger (from Chicago, circa 1986). Sometimes, he throws down like a madman – dig his festively rollicking skins solo midway through “Hades Paradise” or the conclusive, slambashing intro to "Dr.Phibes"!

Leads aren't simply limited to furious, light speed shred(ding) wankery, as attested by the languid leads of "White Witch" or richly extravagant jam/medley making up a large part of "Baphomet". Suffice to say, you'll notice a lot more variety on this release than on early 80s Maiden and Priest. Even later, more elaborate and revved up offerings by said masters fail to capture Angel Witch's distilled mystical essence. Granted, the super bluesy and rather simplistic (but oh-so-catchy) "Suffer" brings to mind vintage hard rocks cuts such as Led Zep's "Black Dog", Rush's "Quarter to Eight" or even Maiden's rebellious carouser "Running Free" but as a general rule, Heybourne and Co. adhere to multi-faceted as well as somewhat unorthodox song constructs which relentlessly come full circle, thus fully engaging the listener. Again, Heybourne's soloing is simply stellar; straightaway, he firmly established his signature lead flourish - a provocative and timely use of the whammy bar - in the same manner as Tony Iommi (his twisted pinkie tremolo) or Phil Cope of Witchfinder General (his extreme phrasing), as well as his fellow twin-guitar band brethren i.e. team Murray/Smith or Tipton/Downing (of the action-packed w-bar school!). Although some tracks reeled me in quicker than others thanks to his all-out riff attack (particularly so on bona fide staples "Atlantis" and "Confused"), the slow burn variety also do a fine job of stunning the senses, be it the "angelic" and wispy original instrumental closer "Devil's Tower" or transcendent, "Prodigal Son" evoking "Free Man", which sees Heybourne pulling a laid back and soothing Paul DiAnno (if such a thing was possible).

Although I can’t pinpoint the source of the following information, I remember reading somewhere how Iron Maiden and Angel Witch were pitted against each other at a Battle of the Bands show (with a record contract at stake no less) sometime in the late 70s...purportedly, the trio was too hung over to play, thus ceding the NWOBHM palm to Steve Harris’ outfit, which, as we all very well know, went on to establish itself as a global household name and mainstream metal phenomenon. So it goes. How differently things could have turned for the Witch had it managed to perform that fateful night. Thankfully, following decades of line-up changes, lackluster releases (which include a hodge podge of singles, demos and compilation appearances) and all-around misadventures, Heybourne finally managed to re-solidify his line-up and churn out a fairly respectable full-length in 2012, As Above, So Below, thus providing a worthy bookend to the band’s slapdash discography. Essentially, any self-respecting heavy rock or traditional heavy metal fan owes it to themselves to check out Angel’s Witch’s titular debut – if possible, the 2005 Castle Music re-issue, with its slew of killer bonus tracks (including the catchy 1981 "Loser" single) and previously unreleased BBC Friday Rock Show Sessions. If anything. it’s the album which set me on the path to discovering untold diamonds in the rough.