Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Look Back at Witchfinder General's Death Penalty

Witchfinder General was one of the more fascinating bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal Movement. Despite having a short run that offered very little success, the two albums released in their early 80s heyday showcased a unique sound that proved to be incredibly influential in the development of the doom metal subgenre. 1982’s Death Penalty makes for a fascinating debut as it shows how they were deserving of their accolades despite sounding like what would happen if the guys from Wayne’s World ever tried their hands at Sabbath worship…

For starters, the band members’ inexperience is made glaringly obvious throughout the album. Phil Cope’s guitar playing may be competent but the production job makes the drums sound like cardboard, the bass is only heard on rare spots, and the vocals are an acquired taste at their best. While Zeeb Parkes has a decent voice that recalls a cross between Ozzy and Diamond Head’s Sean Harris, he lacks charisma and even basic technique at times with “Invisible Hate” suffering the most due to some horribly executed voice cracks.

The lyrics are also worth noting, as they seem to follow Venom’s old school example of sex, drugs, and the Devil. Of course, many of the early 80s bands executed these now dated themes with a pronounced sense of menace or camp, but Witchfinder General’s method is much more vapid. The occult themes on songs like “Burning A Sinner” and “R.I.P.” are close to their Hammer Film aspirations but they lack the foreboding sense that made Sabbath’s horror themes so inspiring. In addition, “Free Country” is a rather lame drug anthem and “No Stayer” has some of the worst lyrics ever written.

But with that said, almost all of these faults are redeemed by the facts that Parkes and Cope happened to be a pretty good songwriting team. Even with their dumb lyrics, “Free Country” and “No Stayer” are actually among the best songs on here as the former rides some punk influence and the latter offers an equally upbeat introduction before going into some fun hard rock riffs. The album’s last three songs will also be of particular interest to traditional doom fans with “R.I.P.” offering some catchy vocal lines and “Burning A Sinner” matching a groovy main riff with the most jovial chorus ever written about a woman burning at the stake.

Some people always claim that a given band never rose above an obscure status due to record company politics or what have you, but there is often another very visible reason for why that band never caught on. Much like Anvil, Witchfinder General was a band worth praising on the basis of their influence but could never be a household name due to their rather boneheaded approach. Death Penalty offers some well-written proto-doom for fans of the genre and some unintentional comedy for everyone else. I would recommend a Saint Vitus or Pentagram album before it, but it’s a purchase that’s pretty hard to regret either way.

Current Highlights:
“Free Country”
“No Stayer”
“Burning A Sinner”

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