VELVET VIPER – COSMIC HEALER
Label: Massacre Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
As much fun as concept albums are, it’s just as much fun when a band dabbles in a little of this, a little of that. The German band VELVET VIPER takes this approach on its fifth album “Cosmic Healer”.
Singer Jutta Weinhold, guitarist Holger Marx, bassist Johannes Horas Möllers and drummer Micha Fromm show they’re interested in a variety of subject matter and have certainly done some homework on each one.
So in keeping with that idea, I thought I’d group the album’s songs into a few self-assigned categories and have a look at them that way.
First, we have what I call ‘Historical/Mythological Reference’, beginning with the opener, “Sword Sister” – which, as would be fitting, starts with the sound of metal ringing. It’s mixed too loudly (especially in the prechorus) in that its hard to hear Jutta‘s ballsy growl in the midst of all the big, bold sound. Her voice is assertive, take-charge, but bringing her up a bit would make us appreciate that more (think of Seraina Telli of Dead Venus to get somewhat of an idea of her vocal personality). The guitar melody in the prechorus is oddly toned, kind of unpleasant, and in the quieter bridge (just the prechorus stripped down), the instruments drown out the vocals and the backing ones are a bit out of sync with Jutta‘s main ones. The subject matter is a touch vague – you want to say it’s a shieldmaiden type thing, or a Valkyrie (the reference to “life’s a barren field” and “a bird with broken wings”), but there’s no real definition as to who the “sword sister” is. She’s “not content, got nothing to defend” and we know that “her mind is full of confusion” but we don’t know about what. The second verse is reflective – “you lost your knife one night“, like she had a bad turn – but I’m not sure what “The window shutter’s closed, the mirror shows no face / The glass is full of wine” is getting at. The chorus has a heavily Priest feel, along the lines of “Painkiller” or something similar, in its relating of a larger-than-life character.Then there’s “Sassenach“, which you know, if you’re a fan of the “Outlander” books or TV show, is a derogatory term for the English used by the Scottish. The bass line that starts it is nicely picked up by the guitar and it’s got a fine beefy, muscular, big-shouldered swagger, but the words have little to nothing to do with the term (save for the line “Lady of the Saxons” maybe). It’s a fun song to listen to, but it’s almost like it exists just to use this word, because the content is really vague: “You guess the show is over? / You think you reach the end?” – who are we talking to? And the meaning of the line “Let the creature be the master of the beginning / Let the creature be the master of the end” is a complete mystery.
In contrast, “Götterdämmerung” (which borrows its title from the last opera of Wagner‘s “Ring Cycle” ; the word refers to the downfall of the gods in Germanic myth) indeed draws its lyrics completely from the story, although its title is a bit misleading, because it relates the events depicted in “Das Rheingold”, not “Götterdämmerung”. It is, however, a faithful retelling of the tale of the dwarf who tries to woo the maidens of the Rhine and when he is rejected, steals their treasure (the Rhinegold) and makes it into a magic ring, which gives him the power to rule the world but brings madness and misery with it (“Shining but damned the material might“, which is nicely put, with “No mercy, no hope, no heart, no soul, no love, no luck, no grace, no passion“). Holger‘s lovely haunting acoustic makes this final song of the album a highlight, as does the otherworldly echo with which Jutta‘s voice is treated, giving it a ghostly, prophetic quality.
Next up is Egyptology, represented first by the title track, which starts with a cymbal-heavy drum solo, then lifts into the lightly swinging verse. They say in the album notes that Pancrates (presumably the Greek-Egyptian poet) “saves lost Egypt” with the goddess Isis (whatever that means), so we’re taking some big liberties with established mythology. They take the same liberties with pronouncing his name – it will remind you of how Bill and Ted pronounced Socrates in the “Excellent Adventure” film. But there are plenty of accuracies too – there’s a mention that Isis “knew all reanimation“, which she did indeed with her husband Osirus (murdered by his brother Set and dismembered, she brought the pieces together and brought him back to life). They refer to her as “Beloved with worship, brought peace to the dying / Feminine power, fight against the evil’s crying“, which is a nice nod to female divinity and note: “The world needed a woman to rescue a hopeless land” (well, amen, sister). The prechorus gives you an anticipatory build, revving you up for the chorus (“Oh priest of magic, priest of the sun / Look to the skies“,” like somethings going to happen), but the resulting chorus drops out almost entirely sonically and even lyrically, asking a question and then subsequently answering it (“Which force gave you this powerful might… cosmic healer“). It loses any punch it should have with its tempo shift, especially since it then goes back into the swing of the verse – it’s a jarring transition and it makes it sound somehow light.
Appropriately, “Holy Snake Mother” gets under way with a hissing sound, perhaps from a tambourine, before an equally slithery Eastern guitar melody sets the tone. You wish it would continue, because it’s great, but we do get it back played just once through before the equally reptilian solo. This tells of Cleopatra‘s suicide (she was bitten by an asp, which is of course a type of viper), but it also creates its own clever myth around the idea of the “velvet viper”, the one snake who didn’t bite the queen and who “(dug) herself out of the grave“; she was later marked with “a crown atop of the head so brave” to reward her for her deed. They tell the story accurately – that Cleopatra got the snakes “for her exile” and walled herself up with them “in her vault of hundreds of stones” – but what takes away from an otherwise stirring, powerful chorus is the cheesy vocal sound effects on the words “velvet viper“. It’s especially unpleasant in the penultimate chorus when the music strips down – to hear it more clearly is not to love it.
The stately “Osiris” makes full use of Jutta‘s natural ringing tone and precise enunciation, especially in the verses; the prechorus builds nicely into a chorus that doesn’t let us down. Here we definitely are told who Osiris is (the “upper Egyptian god of the royal dead“) and there are plenty of nice descriptive details here – “Holding shepherd’s crook, it stands for kingship / Crossing flail of fertility, in the land of Egypt” (these items the god is seen holding in Egyptain art) ; the reference to his offspring, “A falcon-headed son” (that being Horus) ; calling him “brother of Isis“, which indeed he was ; and naming him “god of justice for the living” (he was in charge of weighing one’s good and evil deeds). Even if it is a bit simplistic, it gets the idea across well.
Yet another category is ‘Yay Metal (or Rock ‘n’ Roll)’, represented by “Let Metal Be Your Master”. There’s some interesting references to the communal and therapeutic nature of metal: “We are part of the scene that is good for us” (it heals, it’s an outlet) ; “Deal with your anger / Meet people who are / True and honest so far / Take the stranger’s hand” (things that might happen at a show) ; “Tell it on the mountain / Here is the power, strong in will” (it makes us feel empowered) ; “We are a part of all / We ever meet in our life” (it brings us together, if phrased a little awkwardly). The chorus is a little hokey and cliched (“Ride with the wind / Follow the storm / Fly to the rainbow“) and even a touch comical (“Ride the snake to the lake / Find the last unicorn“). The backing vocals are a bit uneven and ragged sounding (which is kind of charming), but Jutta‘s exacting pronunciation when she sings the title brings a smile. The little touches of organ that develop as the song progresses are badass and a lovely treat.“On The Prowl”, on the other hand, seems to be the flip side of all that. It’s a Scorpions-esque song about rock ‘n’ roll, but here as dubious salvation, maybe even in a personal sense – Jutta admits. “I’m not so sure if life is light and well / It seems to me it’s purgatory / To the hell inside of me” (a fine bit of wordplay) and seems to touch on the fleeting nature of the business (“And I ask myself a hundred times / How long will it go / And I ask myself a hundred times / How long will it go with that old rock ‘n’ roll“). She repeats the second verse, which seems unnecessary, but it, too, is an interesting reflection: “Got to remember, I still believe in myself / What I used to say, sing every night and day / Cause tomorrow I might be dead“. She does struggle a bit the second time, though, with the higher notes, since she’s definitely not a soprano – her resonant lower register is the star of the show. The chorus has a head-bobbing, innocent charm in its tempo and simple sentiment.
And the fourth grouping is ‘Social Commentary’. While it’s kind of marred by tempo changes that feel unnecessary – one in the verses, another in the chorus, and the shift between them is not smooth – “Voice Of An Anarchist” is rooted in an intriguing idea: that being an anarchist is a good thing, something to strive for, perhaps an ideal. The lines “Condemned forever, never understood / You have become the horror of these days / They call you dissolution of all order – no good / Relentless killer, that is what they say” are the misconceptions around anarchy. The prechorus praises anarchists for “A word so strong and pure / When everyone has found a cure” (whether that be religion or political ideology) and the chorus shows their defiance (“I will not be a ruler” and “Will not be ruled“). The second verse is admiration for their daring: “Let them roar, those blind ones who never understood / The desire to find truth behind a word / You’re all to which I constantly aspire“. Again with this one, the mix is super loud, especially in the chorus, where you struggle to hear Jutta. But it’s a strong track, succinct and with a clear and unique point of view.
The raw, open mix of Jutta‘s voice adds to the feel of “Long Shadows”. This is an interesting little number that again makes some pretty valid observations (if a wee bit awkwardly worded): The first verse is pointed and critical – “Cultures rise, cultures fall – no surprise… We see the faraway look in nature’s eyes / We are still listening to people’s lies” – and it gets even more specific later: “Something changed, it is close to twelve (as if to say time is running out) / It is broken, the heart of the world“. The second is equally so, driving home the theme of environmental catastrophe – “We don’t believe the warning we ignore / We’re thinking life forever will go on” and later “Material world creates material people / Shameful abuse, mother earth so evil / Living a way of life of least resistance” and that’s all well-said. So the chorus “Don’t play games with somebody that is bigger than you” unclear when it’s first stated at the song’s opening, becomes a bit more clear later on – perhaps we as humans are the “dwarfs” who “cast long shadows” and the “somebody” is Mother Earth.
One track defies any of my thematic categories and that’s “Darkness Of Senses”, set to Johannes‘ marvelous bass and picked up by Holger‘s low-end guitar. The verses are terrific in that the powerful groove Micha lays down is filled with plenty of space and air, allowing it to percolate and bounce along most pleasantly and letting Jutta‘s natural resonance shine – there’s even a most appealing touch of organ drifting along with it. The solo section is most sultry, with guitar and bass oozing sexily along. But it’s an odd track in that it’s hard to grasp what it’s about exactly. There’s interesting imagery (“Time stands still, gaze of her face” ; “Time stands still, so divine” ; “The night doesn’t know the morning” and “Vanished in a frame, time lost its name“), so it might be about the fleeting nature of time, but the chorus doesn’t clarify or resolve anything (“Darkness of the senses / Spellbound, nice and sweet / This dream I could begin / But not complete“). The last time through, it’s pared down to bare-bones acoustic and while it’s nice to hear Jutta so stripped down and intimate, it feels misplaced.
While it’s a little uneven at times, “Cosmic Healer” is a solid effort and it’s so nice to hear a band who has the curiosity to explore a wide range of material and to do it in a well-thought-out way.