BURNING WITCHES – THE WITCH OF THE NORTH
Label: Nuclear Blast
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
It continues to amaze how a flurry of personnel changes, seemingly one after another, hasn’t rattled or derailed BURNING WITCHES – it’s instead made them more determined, more focused, more enthusiastic. Those qualities are evident on their latest, “The Witch Of The North”.
This is the fourth album for the women – Dutch singer Laura Guldemond, guitarists Romana Kalkuhl and Larissa Ernst (the latter of whom joined last year, but she’s known the rest since first grade, Romana notes in the band’s bio), bassist Jeanine Grob and drummer Lala Frischknecht (all Swiss) – the follow-up to 2020’s “Dance With The Devil” and the second with Laura at the mic. It toys with being a concept album, since many of the songs seem to have similar themes.
As is their wont, the brief intro “Winter’s Wrath” (a lovely mix of acoustic guitars, a lilting 6/8 tempo, male and female choral singing – with an exceptionally notable soprano lead – and a delicately tender vocal from Laura with two foreshadowing lines), leads directly into the title track. Its wonderful stately main riff and groove is reprised perfectly at the end, especially when it slows and elongates, accompanied by the clash of swords. Lala’s precise double kick gives it a rolling, propulsive quality that carries on throughout. Laura’s voice is lush and rich in the verses: in the first, where she invokes the goddess, the “mother of all” and her “sight … guiding us all” ; in the second, where she catalogs what the goddess brings (“the gift of sight”, “wonder and dreams”, “peace … the sake of prosperity” and fertility, with the fabulously feminist line, “Wise are the ways of the womb”). But she snarls in the prechorus when it’s time for the goddess to take up her other mantle, that of the warrior: “Rise of the druids … Fall of the tyrants / Make them pay”. The particular melodic progression of the riffing there has become a Witches trademark – you’ll know it when you hear it. The chorus is a resonant, hair-raising call to arms, Laura booming on the line that contains the title, rising to a shriek on “in valiance we go forth” and wailing defiantly on “For Freya! Witch of the North”, vocal treatments that give the chorus depth and interest, almost like a musical beginning, middle, and end. The mix is big and bold, not overdone, clean but with plenty of grit.
Laura and the guitars cry as one on the opening word of “Tainted Ritual” filled with more of those melodic riff progressions and Lala’s inspired drumming (she gets better with each album). The chorus picks up the pace from the more reflective background-story verses, as it should, considering what’s happening in the plot. This is a nameless heroine who is “left alone to die … chances were low / But she survived”, who heals (“In the land of thousand lakes .. under northern skies / Is where she thrived” – perhaps a veiled reference to Finland) and who comes into her power in the chorus (a metaphor for women’s strength and resilience, if you ask me) through this “Ritual / Taking on a witch’s name / To be untouchable / To never be hurt again”). They tell a story well, even if it’s just the skeleton of one without a ton of detail – in the verses you see the character’s development, her youth and her formative time, and in the chorus you see her successful overcoming of adversity.“We Stand As One” is a dramatic, confident anthem with a big solo guitar-drum-riffing swing. Laura’s enunciation and rasp drive home her words with no ambiguity, the riffing and drumming pushing her voice along throughout. Effective overdubbing in the chorus, a strumming solo laden with harmony in the bridge, a modulated wordless take on the chorus melody and an interesting fadeout in a slightly different key bring it to an end. It’s pretty self-explanatory, one of those metal-as-the-source-of-unity-and-freedom-and-defiance-type songs – it’s not profound and it’s been said before, but it re-emphasizes the familial quality of our genre and perhaps makes a statement about the band itself.
“Flight Of The Valkyries” is a deceptive little number that starts as a ballad, slow and tragic, with prominence given to Jeanine’s lovely bass melody, which she carries throughout the intro. Laura’s shriek at the end of what turns out to be the chorus leads the way into the pummeling gallop that the song becomes, a visual tempo that allows you to clearly see in your mind’s eye the “warrior woman”, the “sinister spirits”, the “choosers of the slain / the fair ladies of the warlord”, the “murderous maidens”, the “devious angels” riding across the skies. Laura spits and growls the verses; the choruses build nicely sonically, her voice gradually growing in intensity as it progresses. This is again self-explanatory – and thank you Wagner for the title, of course.
The detuned chords at the start of the album’s first single, “The Circle Of Five”, are a different sound for the band and they distinguish the track from the rest. The vocal and guitar almost mimic each other in the prechorus and in the second time through it, Laura almost speaks portions of the lyric, giving it interest and color. The verses are a huge nod to Priest (the Witches continue to be heavily influenced by them, maybe specifically by the “Painkiller” period), especially in Laura’s vocal treatment – that Halford-esque terse, biting style and stratospheric pitch, the blend of the wail that segues into an almost death-metal growl in the last line of each verse. The chorus stretches to a slower roll ; the melody when they sing the title is potent ; the vocal overdubbing is excellent with the layered range of high and low singing. This is self-referential in several ways, not just to them as a band, but maintaining the whole witch theme and imagery they’ve relied on throughout their career. The way it starts with “We are the circle of five” and ends with “The circle of five is complete”, “closes the circle” if you will, and Laura’s purred and again almost spoken vocal, together with the whispered count to five at the end, is a confident re-statement of purpose.
“Lady Of The Woods” might be a ballad, but it’s a chilling, despairing one. Their brand of darkly romantic isn’t hearts and flowers – this lady will never let you go and resistance is futile. They use just a few brief lines to describe her and they say more than a host of lines would about her character: “Red roses are blooming in the trail where she just walked” and “You never thought you’d see her basking in the midnight sun”. The operatic male vocal in the prechorus is glorious, and in a way, it’s how we hear the victim in this story as he succumbs to the spell, which is really clever and well done (him not singing actual words shows the takeover is complete ; he has surrendered totally and lost himself). Laura’s voice is truly soulful here, emotional ; her phrasing is excellent, her vocal flourishes never overdone. She especially shines in the rich, lush chorus, where the melody is brighter and kind of optimistic, but the words are anything but (“There’s an evil in the woods / Under full moon it awakes / It has eyes set on you / It has never felt so good to let go of all control”). Romana’s and Larissa’s work here is stellar, in their two solo sections for one, and especially in the end, where the main melody slows and slows and fades away. Jeanine gets the last word with one bass note that seals our victim’s fate.
“Thrall” is the Viking word for the slaves from many nations that they took during raids and the song itself is about an imagined uprising against their masters. Again here the Witches tell the story with sparse but critical details, like in the first verse when they say “A new life, just one mistake” (which was getting caught by the raiders and forced into servitude, that “new life”) and the whole second verse: “Shackles cutting deep into inflamed flesh / The old life fading away fast / Aching backs are bending / Viking servants / Might is serving all”. Laura’s layered vocal in the chorus is a powerful blend of midrange and slashing shriek. Lala’s drumming is notable here, as are the guitar effects on the riff melody and the change in tempo and guitar tone on the prechorus, when the lyrics are talking about rebellion (“Now the time will come / To turn the tides / To take a stand”) and the music becomes more hopeful. But it ends on the less optimistic chorus, further driving home the point that the fate of the thralls won’t change, at least for now.
The instrumental transition “Omen” – along the lines of “Dungeon Of Infamy” on “Hexenhammer” – leads into “Nine Worlds”. The title refers to the nine worlds of Norse myth, which include Asgard, the home of the gods, all of which are held in the branches of Yggdrasil, the world tree. This is a tale of the dark time in myth when “the guardians are gone and the gods are done”, “the turn of tides” when “cruel, vicious nightcrawlers” will “(rule) in the absence of light”. And Laura sets the stage for this disaster in the track’s intro, her voice ascending in a very Priest-like manner, aided by Lara’s cutting cymbal pattern. As the action gets under way, the tempo is lightning-fast, her vocal snarled and screamed, very like those “cruel, vile nightcrawlers”. It levels out in the first part of the prechorus ; the second part includes some really effective overdubbing, Laura’s voice virtually taking on the personalities of these creatures with alternating piercing howls and lower rumbles. Her lower register shines in the chorus (I actually almost like that better than her higher one ; there’s such depth and resonance in it) and she adopts a nearly death metal phlegminess before the final chorus – suitably so as the lyric relates the constant turning of this wheel, the “endless continuous cycle”. The swelling guitar buildup leading into each chorus is also a great touch, rising up the scale as the lyric says “When nine worlds fall” – it’s a well-thought-out juxtaposition. Romana’s and Larissa’s solos here and album-wide showcase their unique personalities, techniques, and feels.
Musical treats abound in “For Eternity” from the potent riff melody at the start, middle, and end to the beefy chugging tempo, but most especially in the wonderful variety of Lala’s drum patterns in the call-and-response section (“For eternity we strike (We strike) / Say a prayer before you die (We die)”, etc.) – she switches effortlessly between blast beats and other rhythms without pause. This is a plea to return to perhaps some sort of spirituality: Laura asks, “Where’s the hand, the hand of Odin?” and later, in the nicely crafted couplet, she says: “Going from rituals and runes / To only rags and ruins” (see what she did there?), noting “Your children traumatized and you horrified”. In the bridge, she rather imagines this utopia happening – “Pray for another day / When the struggle falls away / And the debt is paid / Hope for a better day / Where peace is there to stay / And all evil’s slain” – and her voice too is hopeful, less cynical, as is the brightly optimistic solo section that leads into it. They match the action of the lyrics with the accompanying music very well here and many times throughout.
Paced in pure Priest fashion, “Dragon’s Dream” is terse and frantic in the verses, looser in the chorus, starting and ending with undermixed riffing and featuring a solo that blends a throaty meander with the jet-powered blaze of the dual players and Lala’s crashing cymbals punctuating the verses. It’s an interesting concept, taking the purely fantastical idea of a “dragon’s dream” and making it almost a metaphor for idleness, lethargy maybe, considering there are lines about shaking that off (“It’s time to toss the coin / To know is to believe the dream”) and warning that if you keep it up, it’s not healthy (“Living lives through centuries lost / Where is your sense of self? / You’re losing faith”). This might be stretching for a meaning, but this is a slippery little song to pin down thematically, and that’s just fine.
“Eternal Frost” – another instrumental, hushed and yes… cold, the sound of rushing wind, chilly guitar chords and crystalline sound effects – leads into the bonus track. In keeping with their album-capping renditions of classic metal tunes like Dio’s “Holy Diver” and Manowar’s “Battle Hymn,” that’s Savatage’s epic “Hall Of The Mountain King”. Former Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery contributes solos and Romana actually bought the same guitar model the late Criss Oliva used to record the original with. And boy do they make it their own, as they do with all their covers – they don’t deviate from it, but their stamp is definitely there. Laura seizes it by the throat and drags it into her very being vocally, mad evil chuckles and all, mimicking Jon Oliva but not slavishly copying him. The playing is fat and assertive, the mix is huge and bold – a terrific take on another seminal metal track.
With its thematic continuity and stronger overall songs, “The Witch Of The North” is a far better effort from the Witches than the rushed-sounding “Dance With The Devil”. It’s a return to the form they established with “Hexenhammer”, if perhaps a little less sophisticated. Laura has firmly established her unique voice and perspective and the other four women have coalesced around her – indeed, the circle is complete, hopefully for good now.