He’s blessed us with the classics – Forest Of Equilibrium, The Ethereal Mirror, The Carnival Bizarre, Endtyme – the list goes on; as the main songwriter and penultimate “riff-finder general” for legendary doom outfit Cathedral, the name Gaz Jennings has been synonymous with skull crushing groove for the greater part of 25 years. And as with most class acts, accolades and the spotlight have been secondary to sacrifice – the art of doubling down for the greater good of metal. When Cathedral bowed out after 2013’s The Last Spire, they were arguably at their most focused in years, churning out a swansong that, while not their best, was easily a contender for top props in the band’s back catalogue. Some thought the break was premature, but (Lee) Dorrian and Co opted not to overstay their welcome, deeming the doom metal country fully charted and conquered.
Fast forward to Chapter 2, Verse 1 in “The Book of Gaz” – aka Death Penalty. With Dorrian’s urging, Jennings recruited some Belgian backing in fellow Rise Above (label) veterans Serpentcult – Michelle Nocon (vocals) and Frederik “Cozy” Cosemans (drums), with the addition of Raf Meukens on bass – to bring life to the “bits and bops” (a Jennings term that’s hilariously awesome) accumulated since the late 90s. But let’s get one thing straight: this self titled debut ain’t no Cathedral ‘part deux’. It would be unfair and frankly shortsighted to consider it as such. Just tune in to Nocon’s piercing banshee assault on the heavily metallic ass-kicking opener Howling At The Throne Of Decadence and you’ll see that handling the creative reins on this hate campaign is a shared duty; in fact, Jennings gave Nocon full creative license on all the vocal melodies for the album (of note, the title track on their debut 7” Sign Of Times was the only exception, where Jennings had complete control). She brings some grit, angst, and nut-crushing muscle to the table; charismatic for sure, and her delivery carries many of the album’s cuts, making a track like Children Of The Night timelessly cool. Originally written for The Last Spire, the song is the closest thing to Cathedral on the record – lumbering grooves, heavy as hell head-banging battery and then Nocon’s croon – surprisingly smooth and laid back; with her near operatic harmonizing during the bridges, I couldn’t imagine this track done justice in any other setting.
But as the group’s leader and prime creative mastermind, you can expect Jennings’s stamp to be all over the record’s 10 tracks: thick, downtuned guitar tone – check; twisted doom and groove licks with enough melodic flare to hook you ‘under the radar’ – check. His compositions have always fused influences, paying homage without blatantly robbing the grave – Sabbathian metal with a shot of Trouble has been the foundation, while early Witchfinder General has been the real inspiration (in addition to style, Jennings adopted their 1982 debut album title as the band’s name). Regardless, with full control over this latest outfit, there’s been greater freedom to explore musical ground perhaps deemed outside Cathedral’s narrower scope. This ‘freedom’ is a beautiful thing, because the sweet NWOBHM injection on Eyes Of The Heretic is something you certainly won’t hear on any Cathedral record; the galloping rhythm and lead melody in the first minutes harkens back to (Iron) Maiden’s The Evil That Men Do (from 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) before a Killers era punk breakdown – Nocon commands with a punishing range that challenges some of Bruce Dickinson’s finer moments (minus the famously loveable theatrics). This track and the straight up hard rocker Immortal By Your Hand were both penned around the turn of the century – once again, Nocon’s presence and a badass rhythm section give the songs a modern facelift, and check out the latter’s dynamic solo break at the 2:50 mark – Jennings and Cosemans battle for the limelight with equally ripping deliveries.
Interestingly, the band’s strength and stride come from streamlined mid tempo grooves – simplified compositions with a few surprise twists; with this refined recipe, there’s perfect balance between the ever-evolving ‘Jennings riff’ and Nocon’s melodic lead. Each feeds the other and neither could exist alone (and yield the same phenomenal results); tracks like Golden Tides and Into The Ivory Frost thrive on this synergy – the former hiding a sultry, slithering tritone bridge riff that eventually breaks into one of the more melodic solos for the band. Nocon’s vibrato seems effortless and especially shines here – the bridge groove equally languid and sinister, they have a beautiful interplay and dance – a little give and take, a little push and yield…it’s a fantastic song. But She Is A Witch is the real highlight and passes the simple test: what track do you consistently rely on to assuage the fix – that craving for the hook? This song’s got it and once again it’s Nocon’s delivery that seals the deal. It’s good ole’ fashioned ‘horns in the air’ heavy metal; listen up with confidence, my friends – the central riff could endlessly repeat without a shred of listener’s fatigue (yeah, it’s that good).
And yes, the album is that good; but it’s no surprise given the names involved. But Death Penalty is on to something great here – the revival of a much needed breed of sound and philosophy; and with bands like The Skull churning out new material with a debut full length out later this year, it seems that real heavy metal is on the rise and here to kick some major ass. Damn it feels good to be a dead man walking.
Scribed by: Jeremy Moore