I’ve always had a soft spot for three-piece bands, particularly three-piece bands in the deeply extreme end of the metal pool. It’s just a helluva lot harder for mediocre musicians to hide within the sound when there’s only three of you. The spotlight shines with particularly unforgiving brightness on the guitarist, jumping from rhythm to lead and back again. So when a three-piece band fails, they tend to fall hard, and when they deliver the goods, the achievement is all the more impressive.
Of course, multiple tracking in a recording studio can make three people sound like a dozen, and the wonders of modern engineering can do a lot to mask mediocrity in the digital rendering of songs. But pursuing that strategy disables a three-piece band from delivering a live performance that sounds faithful to the recorded songs. You might sell some albums, but touring is either out of the question or doomed to failure.
As it turns out, Necronomicon is a three-man band from Quebec that can stand the spotlight.
Their new album on Napalm Records, The Return of the Witch, was on that mega-list of June 8 releases we wrote about a few days ago, and I was especially interested to hear it because, although it’s the band’s third album, it’s the first one from Necronomicon in about six years. To peak my interest further, I’d read that the band’s first two albums were quite different from each other, and so predicting the style of the new one was likely to be a bit of a crap shoot. But that seemed like another plus reason to hear The Return of the Witch, because I like surprises — and I sure got a few from this album. (more after the jump, including a song to hear . . .)
So, what does this album sound like? Well, don’t be misled by that photo at the top of this post. Despite the corpsepainted visages, The Return of the Witch is not conventional black metal. It comes closer to Behemoth-style death metal, but even that analogy isn’t a complete fit. In fact, there are more stylistic variations on this album than you can shake a stick at. But really, it’s all good.
The first three songs on the album are marauding death-metal bruisers with pulsating guitar grooves and massive double-bass onslaughts. But then the album tumbles into “Necropolis”, a doomy, mid-tempo slab of chug-heavy guitar enlivened with dreamy piano accompaniment and even an unexpected passage of clean singing at the end. On “The Order of the Moon”, the pulsing riffage returns, growling like the warning horn on a diesel train. The bass vibrates like a high-powered industrial machine, and the double-kicks hammer mercilessly — until the middle of the song when the pace drops into a lower gear with a piano intro followed by a catchy, chug-heavy riff that sounds like something out of Amon Amarth.
And not long after (on “Lillith”), we get a slow, atmospheric instrumental limited to hypnotic percussion and keyboard chords, completely unlike anything else that comes before or after, and symphonic keyboards add an epic quality to “Alpha and Omega”.
I said earlier that a lot of weight falls on the shoulders of the guitarist in a three-piece band, but Rob “The Witch” Tremblay is more than up to the challenge. His playing is inventive, dexterous, and multi-faceted. He churns out high-energy pulses of tremolo-picked fury, fuzzed-out chugging, and some fire-breathing solos that burn like a blowtorch.
Tremblay also provides the vocals, with a voice that sounds like it’s been regularly bathed in battery acid — deep, serrated growls delivering mostly intelligible (and unusually well-written) lyrics about spiritual and occult themes that optimistically promise rebirth, growth, and self-realization. Did I mention that Tremblay also wrote all the music and the lyrics on the album? I’m still trying to decide whether I should admire the dude or hate him, given that I have trouble doing just one thing at the same time.
But Tremblay isn’t the only excellent musician on this album. As I said, in a three-piece band there’s no place to hide, and, at least for Necronomicon’s style of music, the bassist has to step up and become more of a lead instrument. On The Return of the Witch, the bass playing of Diego “D” is indeed quite prominent in the mix, and man, is he fast and nimble!
The drummer, who simply goes by the name “Rick,” provides the final piece of the puzzle. His playing is acrobatic and heavy on the double-kicks and blast-beats, and he provides furious propulsion even when the tempo of the other instruments slows down within songs.
I read another early review of this album that slammed it for being a mishmash of different genres and styles. Well, to each his own. For me, the surprising variety within the album was one of its (many) pluses. The Return of the Witch delivers a dark blend of black- and death-metal stylings, brewed by three inventive and technically superb musicians, and we’re really diggin’ what they’ve accomplished. Here’s a track for you to check out: