Review: Witchfinder ‘Hazy Rites’

My first impressions of Hazy Rites were mixed. A stoner doom band with the chutzpah to call themselves Witchfinder, such an obvious cliché, are giving themselves pretty high standards to live up to and I love a band with self-confidence.

Witchfinder ‘Hazy Rites’

The intro to opening track Ouija bodes well, reminding me of fondly remembered doom bands like the sadly missed Moghul, but… faster. Even when they do the obvious thing and slow down, it’s still about 30% faster than I would expect, which sucks a lot of power out of the riffs. No stoner doom band these days is going to reinvent the wheel, and Witchfinder tread a familiar path but it’s glaringly obvious the band are only half up to speed with the golden rule: tune low, play slow… It’s sadly a let-down for those of us who like their doom at a snail’s pace.

High and harmonised vocals in Satan’s Haze bring an eerie atmosphere and stand out in a genre where vocals can sometimes be charitably described as an afterthought. Again, we’re not talking about breaking new ground, there are loads of vocalists doing the same thing but it’s nailed here, technique and feel wise. Musically, however, the picture isn’t as rosy; passages are often dragged out longer than they deserve, and some of the riffs themselves also don’t stand up to the amount of repetition they’re given.

There’s also a LOT of guitar solos. It’s unfair to dismiss them as filler because the note selection is a cut above the usual blues scale clichés, but they could have so much more impact if only they showed more variety and imagination, and they were used a little more sparingly. As the album progresses, the band wheel out familiar tropes, they do the thing I like where the toms hit on an offbeat while the guitar introduces the riff, which is cool, but I’ve heard it done better before.

They also do the thing where they bring the riff back but slower, but who doesn’t? It’s clear by the time fourth track, questionably named Sexual Intercourse, kicks in, that despite the glimmer of promise shown early on, it’s just another doom by numbers album. It’s not terrible, they make a decent enough hash of it as long as you don’t mind the lack of variation, the guitar and bass sound really good but you can’t replace imaginative and engaging song writing with a fuzz pedal, no matter how good the man on YouTube with the freakishly neat beard tells you it is.

Fifth track Wild Trippin is a bit of a departure, sounding more influenced by recent Elephant Tree releases than the “Sabbath-ier” rest of the album. It moves away from riffs to a more chord progression type arrangement, with clever touches to liven it up a little. It brings a change of feel, if not pace (we’re still stuck in that mid-tempo, not slow enough murk) to the album, but it sounds very derivative again, just in a different way.

High and harmonised vocals in Satan’s Haze bring an eerie atmosphere and stand out in a genre where vocals can sometimes be charitably described as an afterthought…

Sadly, sixth track Sorry is a let-down even by the reduced standards I’ve come to expect. It’s the same riff for two and a half minutes, which is honestly not so great, (although it’s been stuck in my head for days, make of that what you will,) a quick change to another riff, then back to the not so great riff. Meanwhile there’s singing, then progressively louder and more frantic screaming of the word Sorry. That’s it. That’s your lot. An eight and a half minute song done. I’m all for minimalism, but this just smacks of laziness or being rushed and in either case settling for ‘good enough’.

To critique the instrumentation on Sorry, and in fact the wider album, from a constructive perspective, repetition is a wonderful and versatile musical tool. The key is though, whatever you’re playing or singing has to bear repeating, the use of repetition has to be engaging, otherwise it all just becomes a bit of an ordeal, and I don’t mean in a good way like being at the front for a Sunn o))) show. In this case, maximum volume only yields maximum irritation. Lyrically, while it’s ok to be negative and depressing, the starkness and lack of sophistication of Sorry just don’t fit and it brings down the whole listening experience, which is ultimately supposed to be enjoyable.

When I listen to stoner doom, I wanna hear lyrics about smoking such ungodly amounts of weed that you think you’re an astronaut ascending to a higher plane of existence. I want to hear about a lysergic monarch waging an unholy war against all that is fucking pure and good in this world. Heavy metal for me is about absolute excess, so if you insist on writing negative, sorrow filled lyrics, go all out and write something with the poetic beauty that someone like Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride is able to conjur: ‘Love’s golden arrow, to her heart should have fled, not death’s ebon dart, to strike her dead.’ That’s the standard to aim for.

To conclude; would I buy this album? Probably not. I’m not a fan of the genre to extent I once was, and the promised ‘heavier than heavy’ as the album was described on the press release which initially lured me in, failed to appear. Maybe ten years ago I would have been into this, so we can chalk it up to a subjective taste thing rather than it being an objectively bad record because it really isn’t. It’s competent, it sounds good tonally, it just lacks imagination and originality, and there are a few moments that really let the rest of the album down. Would I go and see them live if they were in town? Maybe? Riffs and beers is always a solid choice and I can always nip out to the smoking area while they play Sorry, after all. Would I put this on a playlist for someone who’s never heard the genre before? Again, and more damningly this time, probably not; there are other bands doing similar things better or with more original spins on the sound that I would much rather listen to and recommend.

Ultimately, this release just doesn’t have enough about it to recommend it to anyone but the most rabid, die hard stoner doom fans, because if that’s you, this is potentially up your alley. Even then, you’re so well catered for by labels like APF Records and the near constant stream of doom releases and shows, you might not notice if Witchfinder fly under your radar and you might not be any poorer for that. For the casual or more discerning listener, I’d honestly steer clear because there’s other bands out there doing the same thing, but better, and there’s only so many hours in the day.

Label: Mars Red Sound
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Scribed by: Chris Wood