Witching Metal Ritual is a rather deceiving album title. Having picked out this album to review upon first glance of the title, quite instinctively, given that I’m a person who bows at the altar of the FWOBM, I was slightly taken aback when I heard the actual sound of the band, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. Glaring 80’s metal worship is an ordeal that can swing both ways and Witching Metal Ritual, released on Heaven and Hell Records, is a 40 minutes experience of murky heavy metal invoking the various sounds and ultimately amalgamating the plurality that characterised the heavy music of yore. Onto the obligatory band history, Witches Mark is an Austin-based band whose only release prior to this debut is an EP titled A Grim Apparition. These Texans boast a slew of guest appearances which are nothing short of impressive for a debut album, such as Ross Friedman (Manowar), Jason McMaster (Dangerous Toys), Jack Starr (Virgin Steele / Burning Starr), and Martin Debourge (Damian Throne/Head Transfer Process) being among the contributors.
Starting with the opening track, it is rather clear that Witches Mark are not hell-bent on distinguishing themselves in terms of stylistic and genre divisions, and instead embark on a journey to rally legions of old school adherents to stand as one in unison. ‘Bringers of Heavy Metal’ is a fervid story-telling session of sentient beings descending upon earth and reducing all that exists on it into ash and rubble. The guitar work is standard speed-metal fare, with good measures of heaviness, courtesy of the muffled, explosive power chords, and catchy melody, with Robert Williams’s vocal approach being somewhat reminiscent of a consonant Paul Baloff. ‘Salem’s Fire’ is a track that invokes the likes of Running Wild infused with a thrashier edge with some extremely catch lead work, while the vocals become more sinister and even mischievous in a sense as opposed to the easy route of chanted shouts and shrieks that many bands choose to adopt. ‘Swarm’ is nothing short of a charging and invigorating number with the vocals being the focus here, with Bockman adeptly infusing both a foreboding and anthemic mood. The next track, ‘Slaves to their Own Sin’ sees the band once again chartering the territory of exaggerated ominousness.
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Onto the doomier side of the record, ‘We Die’ presents the band’s melodramatic and impassioned side, with excellent leads that alternate between vigor and melancholy alongside stirring vocals. ‘Cauldron Born’ is a more versatile track (and also among the lengthier ones) in terms of the tempo changes that it presents the listener, with some evocative and infectious guitar work. The title track is an immensely enjoyable listen – something you’ve subconsciously heard before – think a fusion between European power metal with a good dose of Texan griminess, and is also incredibly anthemic. The closing track, ‘Where None Can Follow’ is a bit stagnant at first but gets incredibly catchy after the initial build up. The track is also rather dynamic – the vocal delivery alternate between raspy shrieks and more impassioned, scratchy melodies; while the guitar work alternates between standard speed-metal fare a la tremolo and triplet rhythms atop velocity-driven drum work, which also facilitates a good number of tempo changes in turn effectively enrapturing listeners lest the listener feels any hint of monotony or musical lassitude.
Witches Mark’s genuine and cruddy blend of power, speed, thrash and hints of extreme metal is supported by solid musicianship and song writing skills, with special mention to the latter, given that bands of modernity are far too concerned with showcasing (some would say showing-off, even) their technical dexterity as opposed to creating enjoyable music. Fans of Risk, Iron Angel, Paradox, Running Wild and even Destruction are sure to find something in this excellently executed album. Is Witches Mark yet another addition to the retro-metal movement, and only contributing towards it becoming a full-fledged resurgence? It’s hard to say, but their sound is thoroughly enjoyable, if you aren’t too finicky an enthusiast and can see past the cheesy and grandiloquent posturing of this album which boasts numerous catchy moments, although I must say that these flagrant moments are by no means uncommon across the album, starting with the cover artwork itself!
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