Sunday 28 May 2023

ALBUM REVIEW: Wytch Hazel, "IV: Sacrament"

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 02/06/2023
Label: Bad Omen Records

“IV: Sacrament” CD//DD//LP track listing:
1. The Fire's Control
2. Angel of Light
3. Time and Doubt
4. Strong Heart
5. Deliver Us
6. A Thousand Years
7. Gold Light
8. Endless Battle
9. Future Is Gold
10. Digging Deeper

The Review:

Wytch Hazel are back to save us from ourselves- and mediocre albums- with this, their fourth full length. Hitherto, the Lancastrian band have been building up quite a head of steam. “Prelude” introduced the band with its Thin Lizzy meets Wishbone Ash meets NWOBHM stylings. “II Sojourn” was a more straightforward rock proposition and then their crowning glory, “III Pentecost” was the best hard rock album of 2020- fairly easily.
While “Pentecost” may have borrowed from Argus in terms of its pastoral elements and the overall Englishness of the vibe and the space of the sound, “Sacrament” is different again. Having moved from The Stationhouse studio in Leeds to pastures new at StudiOwz in Wales, the band have retained their spacious and expansive sound, along with the analogue vibe of the production courtesy of Ed Turner who operates here as something like a band-member-once-removed.
It’s clear that the band’s Christian themes/element is stronger than ever here; fear of hell and the control that asserts is the theme of “The Fire’s Control” and “Angel of Light” is about, well- you know already. There is Hammond Organ in the mix, multi layered guitars and an excellent bass sound.
There are quirks here; the solo of “Time and Doubt” is extremely fiery, even when the vocals and lyrics are maudlin. Main man Colin Hendra clearly put in overtime with this record- he plays drums after the departure of Jack Spencer. His drumming here is perfectly serviceable, but it is missing the flair of Spencer’s fills and the subtleties/style of his approach. Hendra instead supplies a bedrock for the other instruments to build upon, without flash or fuss. It’s competent and direct. I suspect the album could have been lifted by a full-time drummer, but the fact that the band and Colin made it work without one is a minor miracle in itself. The guitars, vocals and other instrumentation is superb. They all sound incredible and are full of life and purpose. The acoustic guitar overdubs, used to expand the sound a la the Stones on their best 70s work, work superbly and the whole sound has the effect of a wall of sound. Majestic.
Hendra has kept the songs tight and focused- no sprawling 20min prog epics- but despite the taut running times the record has a completely epic feel; it’s a truly immersive experience. As the listener is exhorted to stay until the battle is won on “Deliver Us”… well, I believed in the quest and I believed every word that was sung. It’s powerful, affecting and effective.
Across the record, Wytch Hazel have achieved something in hard rock/metal that is very difficult to do: they have made a heavy album that isn’t aggressive. Too much rock and metal these days (and all days) relies on aggressive chest beating as a trope to confirm heavy credentials. Wytch Hazel instead rely on songs, melodies and sound. Not many bands have been able to do that over the years- Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Queen, Wishbone Ash and if we extend things a bit, Jethro Tull. It’s a fairly small list (you’ll think of others) and places Wytch Hazel in exalted company indeed. Yes, make no mistake, this album IS heavy. It’s heavy in themes and vibe, even if its airy production belies this. It also rocks hard, but without machismo.
As the record reaches its final triumvirate, the guitar riff and sound that opens “Endless Battle” is simply excellent. The band immediately change things up and the verse section is not what you would expect from the opening- again, a little like classic Tull. The guitar work also echoes Iron Maiden a little- the lineage of British rock and metal is clear and Wytch Hazel are claiming their place in it. The reverbed start to “Future is Gold” allows for lovely acoustic sounds and excellent layered vocals from Colin Hendra; it introduces a rather positive outlook missing from previous tracks- but it is still tinged with a little sadness, a little uncertainty, a little wistfulness. As the album’s ballad track, it works well and is expertly placed in the penultimate position.
Naturally, the band close the album with the longest track- the aptly named “Digging Deeper”. The Wishbone Ash influence is present and correct again here, but the band are now just sounding like themselves- as they did on “Pentecost”. Their sound is unique and instantly recognisable. In fact, over the last few years, Wytch Hazel have become one of my favourite bands. They are peerless at what they do in the modern age and this record is, front to back, incredibly strong. It’s heavy, but paradoxically has a lightness of touch to everything within it. It’s dark but uplifting. It’s much like a Cathedral; a towering achievement built from the ground up, reaching towards the heavens above.
If you haven’t heard Wytch Hazel, you must listen. They are the way, the truth and the light.
“IV: Sacrement” is available HERE
Band info: Bandcamp || Facebook

Sunday 7 May 2023

ALBUM REVIEW: Overkill, "Scorched"

By: Richard Maw

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 14/04/2023
Label: Nuclear Blast

“Scorched” CD//DD//LP track listing:
1. Scorched
2. Goin’ Home
3. The Surgeon
4. Twist of the Wick
5. Wicked Place
6. Won’t be Comin Back
7. Fever
8. Harder They Fall
9. Know Her Name
10. Bag o’ Bones
The Review:  
Well, Overkill return after their longest ever break between albums- “Wings of War” was 2019! It’s only the pandemic that has led to this situation, and I suspect that the band would have put this out in 2021 or 2022 if they had been able to tour it.
First things first: Colin Richardson has produced and mixed this along with Chris Clancy. It sounds incredible. The bass is percussive and aggressive with D.D Verni taking his rightful place in the mix, the drums are crystal clear and have depth along with attack- Jason Bittner is perfect for the band. The guitars are similarly in-your-face and precise. I realise that Bobby G is most fans choice of favourite Overkill guitarist, but I love the Linsk/Tailer axis even more.  On top of all that, of course, is Bobby Blitz Ellsworth’s instantly identifiable shriek.
Of course, if identifiable sounds and elements made for classic albums then the Rolling Stones and Metallica would be on a never ending winning streak of incredible records… Fortunately, this time around Overkill have focused and delivered the songs along with the sounds. With hindsight, I found “Wings of War” a little over-long and a little directionless in parts. The good songs were great, the album tracks were a little more blunt than usual. “The Grinding Wheel” suffered from a mid-album bloat with too many long songs.
“Scorched” delivers only one song over the six-minute mark and it is a welcome approach. Indeed, with the title track being up first and the longest song on offer, the band immediately announce that they are BACK. It’s a cracking and thrashy opener. “While Goin’ Home” may be the most accessible song here, it’s not one of my favourites as I am here for thrash- as I am on every Overkill record. “The Surgeon” delivers handily as does “Twist of the Wick”.
The band have time for a detour or two as well, such as “Wicked Place”- that delivers the Sabbathian lope that the band have perfected over the years (see also “Spiritual Void” and “Come Heavy”). It’s cool that Overkill continue to be OVERKILL at all times. The song writing is sharp and the band is as hungry as ever. Dave Linsk delivers some mighty lead work throughout and for a bunch of guys who are mostly in their 60s, well, it’s incredible that they still sound like this and that they are still making music with this fire and quality.
It's not all flawless; there are a couple of Overkill-by-numbers tracks; “Won’t Be Comin’ Back” is fine, but no better than that and leans a little too hard on melody- it’s an average Overkill album track, redeemed partially by the solo section. The albums most left-field track is “Fever”. It is a slow burning, moody quasi-ballad. This is the type of Overkill song that I have never really cared for and don’t buy the albums for. I didn’t rate “Bitter Pill” on “White Devil Armory”, I don’t like “Shades of Grey” on “I Hear Black...” the list goes on. On the plus side, it has some unexpected percussion, quiet and loud dynamics and isn’t a bad song per se. It’s just not what I want from an Overkill track. I’d probably rather have a throwaway thrasher than a well-crafted moody song like this one. My loss, I suppose.
Fortunately, “Harder They Fall” redeems the band instantly with a straight ahead rager- fast and furious with plenty of machismo as is expected from the title. Simply put, it is this type of song I’m looking for from the band. Not that they owe me anything at all when they are 20 (!) albums deep into their 43-year career. The chugging riff of “Know Her Name” is also welcome and feels like an old friend. Indeed, between this and the (surprisingly funky and groovey) closing “Bag O’ Bones”, the band don’t put a foot wrong and finish the album in fine style.
Overkill began an incredible run of albums with “Ironbound” in 2010. For me, that one remains their peak (of any era) but “Electric Age” was almost as good. “White Devil Armory”, “The Grind Wheel” and “Wings of War” are all good records- with perhaps a tendency for the quality to drop just a little with each album in release date order. “Scorched” reverses that slight downward trend and brings them back up a notch.
Another year, another great Overkill album. Enjoy them while they are still here as sooner or later- much like Motorhead- they simply won’t be around anymore. This is recommended to all fans of the band, all thrash fans and is as fine a starting point as any for anyone who wonders what the band are all about.
“Scorched” is available now

Band info: Bandcamp || Facebook