Stop me if you’ve heard this one: band releases a gem of a debut that sounds different from the muddled mass of music vying for attention. Said band releases a couple more records the muddled masses rave over, then a few years later take a bit of a left turn. With each new album coming after increasingly expanding lengths of time the muddled masses mumble and mewl, yearning for the return to the vibe of the classic, earlier albums. And while I’m sure James and Lars are shedding copious tears because they’ve left their “true” fans behind, we’re actually talking about Witchery, who are probably going to have to weather the same bullshit from metal pundits over their new album In His Infernal Majesty’s Service.
Formed 20 years ago from the ashes of Satanic Slaughter, Witchery took the rising sound of Swedish death metal and tempered it with a healthy dose of thrash, speed, and the humor that was always a bright spot in the European metal scene. 1998’s Restless & Dead is rightfully a classic for how effortless Witchery made it look. Song titles like “Awaiting the Exorcist” and “House of Raining Blood” showed the band openly acknowledging their influences, and the following year’s Dead, Hot and Ready continued the mélange right down to the album cover where skeletal mascot Ben Wrangle, dressed as a medical examiner, sneaks a peek under the dress of a cadaver. By the time of 2001’s Symphony for the Devil, the tunes got more aggressive, less overtly fun, but there was enough charm left that most folks group it in as part of the “first era” of the band, when they were signed to Necropolis Records. One label switch later to Century Media and things went quiet for five years until Don’t Fear the Reaper, featuring a Tue Madsen mix and artwork that was more in keeping with the serious metal that was selling at the time. It was four years before Witchkrieg, which admittedly scores points for a humorous title (intentional or not) arrived with an overdose of guest spots including Kerry King, Hank Shermann, and Gary Holt.
And now half a dozen years have passed and here we are with In His Infernal Majesty’s Service, adding Nekrokraft vocalist Angus Norder but losing the Tue Madsen mix, which gives the record a chance to breathe a little bit more than past records. “But wait!” cry the muddled masses lost in their nostalgic navel gazing. “Is it like the old stuff?”
Nope. Not even close. What it is, though, is perfectly good modern thrashy death metal. The drums sound great, the riffs are loud and plentiful, and Norder’s vocals fit in really well with the music. “Netherworld Emperor” crushes with an early Slayer vibe before bursting into a dozen different directions. Likewise, single “Nosferatu” sounds exactly like something Tom Araya should be screaming on — where are those guest spots when you need them? Elsewhere the record keeps a steady pace: songs like “Escape From Dunwich Valley” give enough variety to keep everything from sounding exactly the same.
Look, I’m right there with you: Restless & Dead is a classic, an amazing album Witchery will probably never recreate. But here’s the thing — why should they? After 20 years I’ll hazard a wild guess that Witchery are making exactly the music they want to make, and in exactly the way they want to make it. We can cry all we want with “they should have used the gear they used on the old stuff” and “they sound like every other band now” but I suspect that if Witchery, or any other band for that matter were to actually listen to the muddled masses, the results not only wouldn’t be good, but might be exactly what we deserve.
Wait, am I still talking about Witchery?