Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Witchrist - Beheaded Ouroboros

Witchrist come from New Zealand. They are aligned with the mighty Invictus Productions. And they play war metal. Like their twin band Diocletian, Witchrist emphasize songwriting and draw power from... riffs you can actually hear! That said, Witchrist are much closer to "orthodox" war metal--their riffs are heavily obscured by the thick low-end production, and they've avoided any kind of obvious hooks. What's really cool about Beheaded Ouroboros, though, is that even in the midst of this insane unremitting bludgeoning, it's still worth talking about songs.

It's common wisdom that war metal should be enjoyed simply as a constant stream of noise, and that it's basically stupid to talk about individual tracks, passages, or riffs. I couldn't disagree more. Sure, in war metal the tracks don't have their own characters in the way they do on, say, a rock or pop album. There's a continuity between them, a consistency of atmosphere and a flow of aggression.

But this is also true of many other styles of extreme metal and hardcore. And the thing is, when any of this monochromatic music is done right, there should still be something there to grasp onto in each song, some distinctive musical events. The song shouldn't be interchangeable with every other song on the album. A great example is Discharge--they construct each song within far more rigid parameters than any war metal band, but once the music draws you in it becomes easy to distinguish between tracks. Sure, the songs all sound the same, but they do things slightly differently. And when a band is doing shit right, that difference often happens naturally. It can be as simple as two structurally identical songs each having riffs so awesome that the one could never be mistaken for the other.

Without further ado, a track-by-track review. Warning! Spoilers ahead!

1. Sorcerer of Lightning: Some ambient noise. Some plodding "doom" chords over some drums. Whoop-de-doo. Then WHOA, at 3:20 shit goes down. Witchrist explode into a twisted but anthemic harmonized riff, and the drums sound like a subterranean vibration. They ride the momentum into a punishing stream of double-bass, then back into a new rendition of the main riff, this time with the cymbals pushing it forwards. Then some epic doom riffing that now makes a lot more sense. And at 5:53, what you all came for. The blasting. And a tremolo riff that echoes the first without repeating. That's when it becomes clear just how good these guys are at exploiting death metal chromaticism without sacrificing an ear for consonant harmony.

2. Devour the Flesh: Where the first track was a great example of epic, through-composed metal, this is the fucking grinder. It basically works like a hardcore song. In a track like this, which is all about pure propulsive hate, the main riffs have to do a lot of work, and they do. Alternating between the first and second riffs, Witchrist build up a sense of violent compression, which they release at around 0:55 with a sick stomp section. But the song isn't just three perfectly arranged ass-kicking riffs. It surprised me by really going somewhere, rather than just returning to the original pattern. Everything they whip out after the halfway mark is just as cool, if not cooler, than what came before.

3. Temple of War: Starts with a clever variation on a classic riff, but what really makes the opening so strong is the thumping snare-kick assault of the drummer. He adds so much weight and momentum to the melodic idea, he's really playing with the riff rather than just under it. The clincher, though, is this jaw-droppingly heavy breakdown at 0:27. It sounds like an ocean turning over, or something. As is usual for this album, it just keeps getting better from there.

4. Adoration of Black Messiah: I love how they make you think you're about to hear some stupid Nile-esque string instrumental, then immediately wipe it out with a venomous hissing sound. This is basically just a cool track built on a strong melodic theme. Except, oh wait, at 1:54 there's this sick, gradually escalating riff that reminds me of the tension before a human sacrifice. And then there's this sick, very black metal blasting section that's like a commentary on it. Do you see how hard it is NOT to pay attention to the individual songs?

5. The Cauldron: Haunting, illogical leads. Drumming that pushes along at a dirge pace without losing momentum. Reminds me of the slower tracks on Darkthrone's Under A Funeral Moon. Not that it sounds the same, it just works the same way. But then the song stops being what you expect it to be. It gets even more awesome.

6. Shrine of Skulls: Holy fuck this is so heavy. There are, as usual, some great fast riffs, but the slow riffs that punctuate them are insane. And these are the things that really set the song apart. They play off the contrast between super-low chugging and sorrowful, lilting riffage. So fucking heavy, so twisted.

7. Deathbitch: With a stupid title like that, you'd expect this to be the album's throwaway, but it's not at all. This track basically exists to set us up for a super-heavy version of the classic black metal tremolo descent. It's hypnotic and climactic. And then they throw in a mosh part. YES.

8. Judgment and Torment: Great conclusion. The hammering riff that opens and closes this track is a great example of how cool a well-phrased variation on an unoriginal note combination can make it new, compelling, powerful. Then it opens up into some seriously fast blasting. Throughout the album, the vocalists really sound like demons howling from beyond, but here it's particularly otherworldly and overwhelming.

Utter devastation, haunted by phantasmal melody. Total chaos, delivered in deceptively sophisticated structures. I can't recommend this album enough. I may like it even more than War of All Against All. It's definitely a grower: unless you're a hardened war metal vet, you will need to listen to it at least once before it opens up to you, before you start picking up on the riffs and transitions. And it really helps to listen at least once with a good pair of headphones--the riffs and those all-important touches of harmony will stand out more clearly. Then, unleash it full blast on your speakers.

destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

Buy this album on Amazon


  1. Nice review, I thought you'd dig these guys if you liked Diocletian. I don't think Witchrist has the same level of replay value as Dio, but at the same time there's something darker about this band, which can make them more engrossing depending on your mood. Diocletian is like the war of Armageddon - these guys are like the subterranean landscape that remains after all is dead. I guess they recorded their sophomore album "The Grand Tormentor" over Easter, so I expect that to be released later this year. They're probably just waiting for Alex (Occultorture) to finish whatever amazing artwork he's doing for it. Guitars tuned to A never sounded so good, did they?

  2. Yeah man, I love 'em, thanks for the recommendation. I think the choice between these two bands is more or less a personal taste thing. I agree that Diocletian has more direct and overtly catchy songs, but there's something about Witchrist that I like even more. They create a sense of mystery that's missing from a lot of nowadays black metal, and they've given the music enough hidden depth to reward careful listening. Really looking forward to whatever they do next. Also, I want a shirt.

    Down to A??? Is that even possible??? Sick.

  3. Thank you very much for this recommendation, this band is awesome! This album should not only be listend to, but be felt as well. I mean, you haven’t really experienced it until you felt it rumble and pound (Temple of War, aaarrgggh!). No idea how my fellow traffic-jam-victims feel about it though, since my best current sound system is in my car…

    Gonna check out Diocletian soon.