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'Just listen to the knocks of cloven hoof' - 90%

Acrobat, July 26th, 2009

Well, let’s throw our minds back for a time being and recall some distant past when Germany was not a place of autobahns, sausages and misplaced guilt stemming from that angst-ridden 1930s/40s period, but rather to an olden age whence wizards and witches inhabited every moonlit forest, threatening idyllic peace and busty maidens, and when Witchfinders (before logic relegated them to society’s unemployment office) had free reign to exact whatever pricking they saw fit as to exact upon suspected minions of the Devil. Stormwitch, as their clichéd moniker might suggest, dwell upon all this and more. And armed with a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and some of Hammer’s finest films they set out to conjure just these atmospheres of an earlier Europe ridden with superstition and, er, cottage industry.

The occult certainly wasn’t anything new to metal at this point, even considered somewhat of a cliché by 1986 (enough for certain thrash bands to move rather rapidly away from it, Megadeth, for instance). But I don’t really care what’s considered ‘old hat’ in music and I’ve always been interested by the different ways metal bands use the occult (not literally, of course! I don’t actually believe King Diamond speaks with the ghosts of the undead… though, he does and that’s the important part). Doom bands often use the occult as a representation of personal demons that trouble them (often from a seemingly Christian perspective), whereas other metal bands use it to symbolise a sense of rebellion and rejection of traditional values (Running Wild’s Gates to Purgatory, for example). Stormwitch, on the other – possibly left – hand, simply seem to be singing about the occult because it’s a good way of provoking certain images in their listeners’ heads, and hey, it’s fun to listen to.

In a similar way to how their lyrics may seem initially similar to Mercyful Fate, if perhaps devoid of some of the Dane’s more malefic touches, then Stormwitch’s music can too be said to have something of a Mercyful Fate Lite vibe about it. There’s a lot of pre-Don’t Break the Oath MF distilled into Stormwitch’s sound, and believe me it’s certainly welcome! But as I’ve said, it’s lighter in its overall mood, but that’s hardly of any real detriment. This brings me to another comparison: Helloween. As well as Andy Mück’s vocals having some Kai-alike intonations to them, the band’s overall sound is perhaps a little something like what Helloween would have sounded like if they’d followed some of their more sinewy mid-paced moments on Walls of Jericho (think ‘Phantoms of Death’ in particular) to a more melodic, refined conclusion rather than becoming something of a pop-metal band on Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part I. So yes, it’s not the most original and world-shaking thing I’ve heard, but Stormwitch are not artistes who redefine what is capable with heavy music with their music; they’re a highly enjoyable band who are happy to write well-constructed songs that may or may not rhyme “George Michael” with “Menstrual Cycle”.

Surely, you’ve got time for something like that, right? It’s something that German heavy metal bands seem to do very well post-NWOBHM. After all, Britain gave up producing traditional heavy metal in any great quantity by the mid-80s (for reasons I can’t really fathom), so surely someone had to carry on the torch, right? Although, the German thrash scene gets its deserved accolades, the influx of traditional metal bands coming out of Germany in the 80s is certainly not something to be sniffed at in both terms of quantity and quality. Helloween and Running Wild certainly have their fans, as do Grave Digger to a lesser extent, so why not Stormwitch as well? Certainly the material present on Stronger than Heaven puts it way ahead of, say, ‘Headbanging Man’ and its ilk. This band needs more credit, especially when people still deem Hammerfall to a be a worthwhile band!

Stronger than Heaven is certainly an album any trad metal connoisseur will enjoy from the first spin, and although I can’t really say there’s a moment I didn’t really enjoy there’s a few definitely standouts. Opener, ‘Rats in the Attic’ introduces us to the delightful, melodic riff-o-rama, which is given a well-pronounced place in the mix with that lovely mid-80s warm mush of a guitar sound. It’s certainly not the most serious or shadowy number on Stronger than Heaven but still at its most overtly ‘fun’ the album is nowhere near as “HAPPY HALLOWEEN!” as the cover art would suggest. This probably from where I’ve devised most of my Helloween comparisons – it’s certainly the closest they get to Kiske-era Helloween (and a year before the Keepers… began, too). ‘Eternia’ proves another wholly worthwhile number with its ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’ styled guitar work interspersed with misty little verses that move the song forward at a great pace. The title track itself shows the band at their most anthemic; it starts off with an ol’ witch gang-chant, which is fair enough as the witches on the cover have perms… eighties witches, really, their familiar was probably a curling iron. It’s quite an archetypal eighties-styled heavy metal number it wouldn’t really sound out of place on one of the good Dio albums, which is probably a good indication of this band’s melodic class.

But still, my favourite is the rousing, unsettling fast number ‘Slave to Moonlight’. It’s the typical horror tale of changing by moonlight into something far more hairy and waking up covered Pedigree Chum with no idea of what you’ve done the next morning, which is a truly frightening image. I like really like the interjection of cheesy eighties horror sound effects in the sound. Stormwitch really does sound like a great eighties horror movie with all the charm and schlock you could ever ask for – forget society’s ills and politics for a while and captivate yourself with the fears of demons, gypsy curses and that howling sound on the wind that you can’t quite put your finger on.