Saturday, May 22, 2010

Witch-Hunt - Souls Enshrouded Fire

Witch-Hunt - Souls Enshrouded Fire
2000, X-Rated Records

This one was quite a surprise, and at first it seemed to have everything going against it in my mind, not the least being the eccentric cover art (see below), something that for some strange reason I reacted against negatively as soon as I saw it - I don't know why. Naked woman? Good. Fire? Good. What looks like the Eye of Lucifer himself in the background? All good. All these in combination? Hmmm...but then again, who am I to judge? If nothing else, the cover grabs your attention, which is what it's supposed to do after all. Then you have the Dimmu-ish title, the seeming unoriginality of the other song titles (I'm talking about a first impression here, after all) and the lyrics, which I read straight through before I even put this album in my CD player. The less said about the lyrics the better...

But truthfully, this is all meaningless to me, as I'm here to review the music, not the cover art or the words behind these songs or anything else. And as far as those other things go, it is well understood within the black metal scene that the lyrics and art are only there to serve as a badge or prop, as it were, to identify the band and place them in a certain classified genre within the mind of the audience...what it all comes down to is the music, and how it measures up against the other bands in the scene in terms of originality, clarity of vision, etc.

So I'm pleased to say that Witch-Hunt does measure up, on the whole, to the rest of the bands offering this type of music, and I believe they even exceed all expectations in certain moments. For me, now, having listened to this more than a dozen times at least, my memories of this album have been pared down to its bare essentials: the melodies or segments that struck me as being particularly original, well-played, well-turned, or shining with an impressive craftmanship. There are enough of these on this album to qualify it as a success, in my eyes.

When listening to this, the first thing that will probably strike you as being atypical is the guitar and drum sound: it's thinner than the usual ultra-slick production that black metal bands are touting these days on their releases, but it offers something new: clarity, and a wealth of new impressions. In other words, the guitar sound allows the guitar music to come through adequately, without being washed into a Tagtgren-styled wave of effects and digital trickery. I like that, and I wish more bands would take it upon themselves to produce their albums (I'm not sure if that's the case here, but it sounds like it): it seems to me that if we lose quality and a 'powerful' (read: sterile), clean sound on every release, we at least gain the added internal messages that can come through in the ways a band produces their work. Who knows how to make their music sound better than the band? Whose ears are the most experienced with the material?

So that aside, the music itself is excellent: idiosyncratic, original, well-composed, or subjective and expressive in the best sense of the separate terms. With-Hunt have created a very strong, individual album here - meaning it stands out from the rabid pack of clones that the black metal world has become, and it offer something new for your ears. If that isn't something to cheer about, I don't know what is.

This isn't the 'typical' black metal release because this band just refuses to be held down within the stylistic confines of any one subgenre or musical scene. No, they combine a lot of different sounds on this release, much in the same way as that other strange and unsung American black metal band, Epoch of Unlight. Some sections will remind you of other 'black' bands, others will call to mind the classics of death metal: meaning older death metal bands like Slayer or latter-day Possessed, before the Suffocation clones stepped in. There is also a lot of what I take to be 'power metal', or NWOBHM influence in here, which works very well within the context of song structure and the creation of memorable melodies. Again, all of these influences are mixed together seamlessly - all of it goes into their sound effortlessly. Listen to a song like the third, 'Enshrouded', with its moving female choral work and bright piano solo in the intro, and tell me this band doesn't have a voice worth listening to. While there are frequent lengthy blasts and screeching tremelo-picked sections, arising from well-written breaks, these seem to be almost an afterthought in the compositions, a sudden eruption of random violence in the songs. For the most part Witch-Hunt weaves together masterfully eloquent and evocative melodies that are only slightly tinged with malice or anger - rather they seem contemplative, melancholy, almost sullen or bitter. Within these songs there are a few lyrical (meaning poetic, emotive) turns of phrase or quoted progressions that are breathtaking in their simple beauty. This band has a new sound, and I enjoyed tracing the development of these melodies throughout the songs. To be sure, there is a lot of aggression on this release, as befits their chosen genre and style, but it sounds almost like it is being related to your ears second-hand: like a tale you are being told of violent times, not the actual creation of violence as such. This is also a characteristic of this album that I enjoyed: these songs have a seasoned, worked-out, 'smooth' feel to them, as if they had been rehearsed and worked on so many times that their subsequent performance for this recording was completely instinctive to the band. Interesting.

In any case, I respect this band for what they have accomplished here, and for taking a courageous step towards cultivating a new, vital, and original style. I hope they continue to be innovators in the future. Take my word for it, this album is well worth seeking out.