It’s always a bad idea to judge an album by its title. There I was, assuming that The Vast Electric Dark would be a slab of drone-y, plodding distortion in the post-metal mode—a statement by a band that thinks more in terms of soundscapes than riffs. But I was wrong (and how). Australia’s Witchskull plays a nervy, focused kind of heavy metal that careens from one riff to the next with the force of a truck rolling downhill. Or, better yet, maybe this is the sound of whatever lives out there in the vast electric dark—some creature, all sinew and muscle and bone, moving relentlessly forward, honed shark-like for its single purpose.
Witchskull announces that purpose—riffage over ambiance, momentum over mood—with the very first track, the hard-shuffling title song, and they do not deviate from it until the last. Sure, they stretch out for the occasional passage of insistent grooves and Iommian guitar work. But this is not a band that’s especially interested in innovation or surprising gestures—there are no frills here, no odd turns. At times, I’ll admit, it all feels a little familiar. But for an album that broadly belongs to the doom/stoner tradition, The Vast Electric Dark is refreshingly shorn of psychedelic overgrowth. You won’t find any acoustic interludes, brooding instrumental passages, or canned spoken word samples: just a stripped-down beast that aims to hit you square in the guts—and does.
There’s a point, of course, at which consistency becomes predictability, and dependability becomes merely derivative. Witchskull skillfully avoids that point because no aspect of this album, from the macro to the micro, overstays its welcome. There are eight tracks, roughly three to six minutes each, made up of passages that never drag and riffs that hang around for just long enough. The whole thing, streamlined and restrained, is shy of forty minutes. In other words, Witchskull spares us their self-indulgence—but you may not even notice, or care, because the album sounds so good. Joel Green’s drumming actually feels percussive, a quality sadly and surprisingly lacking on many metal albums. He and bassist Tony McMahon form a propulsive unit that perfectly supports Marcus De Pasquale’s guitars, and the three of them conjure up an energy—a vast, electric, dark energy?—that seems beyond the sum of its parts. While there’s plenty of strategic guitar overdubbing on this album, it’s mostly subtle, and the band never loses that sense of vitality and urgency transmitted by the best three-pieces.
I listened to The Vast Electric Dark a few times before I realized what it is that pushes this band beyond being merely respectable. (Just because a band doesn’t suck doesn’t always mean they’re worth your attention.) Marcus De Pasquale’s vocals—somewhat hoarse, strangely accented, interestingly phrased—reward repeated listens. (Check out his weird vibrato on “Raise the Dead,” for one thing.) There’s an unexpected quality of despair in that tone, a weariness in the way he deploys the usual heavy metal shout that makes it sound as though he’s both of the band and against it—or being destroyed by it. That gap between De Pasquale’s voice and the rest of the band is The Vast Electric Dark’s best quality. I suspect it’s the sort of thing that can’t be engineered but comes about through intuition and talent—and maybe luck, or black magic. It’s also what justifies Witchskull’s description of itself as “a blues based doom outfit.” I don’t hear a whole lot of blues in their sound—blues by way of early Sabbath and 70s hard rock, perhaps—but I recognize the sensibility. De Pasquale, as with the great blues singers, transforms weariness into a kind of power and despair into a stance of authority; the band, meanwhile, is both his companion and antagonist, therapist and tormentor, an electric pulse trying to out-beat the inevitable decrepitude foreshadowed in his voice. They won’t win—no one has or ever will—but isn’t that all part of the fun?