The history that I have with Witchfinder General – Death Penalty is aggressively dumb in retrospect. I always thought Witchfinder General were just dumb, trashy Black Sabbath clones with the hammer horror aesthetic going on. Then eventually – around December or so of 2019 – this album finally clicked after off-on years of trying and I realized my perception of it was pretty off-base for what the band actually is. Sometimes you need to pull the stick out of your ass and reappraise the kind of things you value out of a band once in a while. This year’s been deeply amusing in retrospect for that kind of thing.
Besides, Witchfinder General weren’t Sabbath clones, not really. It’s true they’re obviously influenced by them, certainly – the tinge of Iommi is obviously all over Phil Cope’s guitar playing – but the band were part of the sainted NWOBHM movement and it shows in a lot of respects. What WfG does is that they fuse the bludgeoning, lumbering violence of Sabbath with the deceptively-lithe athleticism & agility of what the other NWOBHM bands were doing at the time. There’s slower material here, certainly, but huge chunks of Death Penalty move along at a comfortably rocking clip, largely mid-paced to outright quick in the case of “Free Country”. The same sort of brash desires and lust for stardom that animates the rest of the movement is here in spades, with an endearing honesty that goes even beyond the norm for the movement. Witchfinder General don’t pretend like they’re Serious, Dramatic Artistes; they’re a band who wanted to get fuckin’ wasted on booze and drugs and bash out loud ass songs, and they never pretend like they’re anything other than that. There’s a room and place for the more purposefully artistic stuff and for the stuff that mostly disregards that to have a good time. Even if WfG are a band who are more than capable of cranking up the gloom and menace when necessary.
The band’s emphasis on riffiness and agility also reveals something about them: WfG are a band who know how to write some really killer hooks, and have a strong ability to use sudden tempo changes to reinforce that. This is one of those records where the writing and delivery are both so memorable that you’ll get both stuck in your head all day long. “Free Country” is the really obvious pick, of course – the way the drums and guitars charge out (and the way the second half of that riff wraps into that bend) is ridiculously catchy, as is the bridge and the solo. Hooky almost to the degree that a pop rock song would be, with an almost improvised feeling emerging from pure jamming – it’s a killer song. Most metal bands wished they wrote something as memorable. Really, there’s nothing calculated or forced about this record at all – it just sounds like they went with whatever ideas they had going on at the time, winged it, and it just kind of works. It’s a song where they’ll jam out a killer “War Pigs”-y riff and then the vocalist just starts hollering about how he really wants some god damned beer right now. MAH MAH MAH, MAH BEEAH. It’s a sort of amateurish naivete that you don’t really get from most metal bands anymore, right down to the vocals. Zeeb Parkes obviously isn’t gonna win any awards for technical prowess or some other nerd shit that even I prattle on about. But he’s an engaging vocalist who meshes with the rest of the music really well, has a really killer ear for the right vocal melody to go with the guitars and drums and just has a ton of personality and charm all his own.
Meanwhile “Witchfinder General” lurches out with this basher of an opening riff – a NWOBHM-y figure that basically comes out and says “yeah we’re gonna bash some fuckin brains in” – and then the drums just hammer out with this almost stumbling groove where the drummer sounds as if he’s about to faceplant. He doesn’t, of course, and instead provides this sense of groove that gives the song a subtle, off-kilter quality that helps both guitar and vocals ramp up the menace. There’s this one riff in the middle that goes into this slinky disharmony kind of bit before lunging straight into a NWOBHM gallop groove for the solo and it’s one of the sickest passages in the then-nascent doom genre. The passage after that, where it goes into that lurching little bit for the second to last verse is fantastic. “Burning a Sinner” takes the horror vibe most of the record soaks in and gives it an added sense of gravity and menace – the riff underpinning the chorus, and the way both it and Parkes’ vocal melody work with one gives it a strange, sickly vibe. It’s the kind of passage that you’d almost imagine being set to the ending of the original Wicker Man, something like that. The title track switches it up between that nasty opening riff and an even better arpeggiated one underpinning the verse – exuding this rather wicked sort of aura. The ending to the song is rather unexpected, but this band has a habit of pulling off that kind of thing anyway – the acoustic outro has this kind of strangely affected, haunting quality going on that’s underpinned by maybe the best solo on the album, one that has perhaps the most outright bluesy quality of the lot. It’s a great tune.
Really, none of the songs here are outright bad, and most of them are some of the most purely, effortlessly hooky and catchy material around. There’s a reason why this album is usually a staple of most of the dudes behind your favorite other doom metal bands. That it’s a fairly brief album is one of its strongest assets as well – sometimes you’re in the mood for a huge, expansive Reverend Bizarre album where you’re left soaking in it for over an hour, and sometimes you just wanna listen to a band bash some heads in and be done in about 30 mins, and the latter is what this album does really well. The production is perfect for it too, I think – guitarist Phil Cope wasn’t really satisfied with it due to the lack of bass in the mix, offhand. Still though, for an album that was recorded in two days, it sounds incredibly good – the guitars have that fat, articulate tone, the vocals are loud and upfront, and the drums have this fucking awesome boxy tone that couldn’t be farther removed from the sterility of a protools’d triggered up kit if it possibly tried.
Really, it’s a hell of an album. Don’t be an idiot like I was and dismiss it for years, it rules and that’s all that needs to be said about it.
Favorite Track: Witchfinder General