(In this post, Andy Synn reviews the debut album by Old Corpse Road.)
We’ve only mentioned Old Corpse Road in passing before at NCS, but (for various reasons) never got round to giving them their due. I’m hoping to rectify that though, because ’Tis Witching Hour… is a prime example of the lavish creativity and complexity one can find amidst the swirling murk of the UK black metal scene.
Released at the tail-end of last year, the band’s first full-length release is a bombastic, unapologetic display of gothic grandiosity, folk-ish eccentricity, and black metal ferocity.
Instrumentally, every song is performed impeccably, with a life and vitality that’s a far cry from the sterile and over-processed performances that clutter the metal mainstream. Unsurprisingly, the guitars play a central role, transmuting from scalding tremolo runs into shape-shifting, visceral riffage or lachrymose acoustic lamentation. The drums blast and shatter with necromantic vigour, yet are equally capable of restraining themselves when the song calls for it, shadowy rhythms prowling with a predatory patience. All of this is shrouded in a layer of brooding, gothic drama by the ever-present, ostentatious keys, which provide each track with an air of dark, ominous theatricality.
Lengthy, serpentine songs like “The Cauld Lad of Hylton” and the utterly vicious “Hag Of The Mist” meld the frantic black metal assault which forms the foundation of the group’s sound with a looming symphonic atmosphere and a doom-laden, deathly vibe, permeated with sombre acoustic parts and bleak, archaic vocal melodies.
These intricate and captivating vocal arrangements are the band’s ace in the hole, with almost every member contributing to the enviable cacophony of voices on display. Booming death growls and hair-raising blackened shrieks, deafening banshee howls and savage, bestial snarls demonstrate the band’s venomous vocal prowess, but – not to be outdone – the clean side of their repertoire showcases a similarly enviable variety of styles and characteristics, from clear, powerfully voiced melodies to mesmerising moments of whispering mystery, from chanting choral ululations to portentous gothic utterances.
The impressive variety and careful arrangement of these voices is one of two key features that set the band apart from its peers. The other is found in the thematic thread that ties the band’s work together and grants it an instantly recognisable and eminently singular, identity. With lyrics and melodies derived from old English folk tales and legends, the band build upon, and bring to life, a historic foundation that has otherwise all but faded into obscurity.
Certainly there’s often something anachronistic about the specific phrasings and pronunciations used and the folkier derivations of some of the lyrics, vocals and musical motifs paying unabashed tribute to an almost mythological era of ye olde England – but it’s done in a manner designed to draw you into the world created here, where these stories, each one a link to our past and to the primal fears that afflict men, take on a life of their own.
I’m sure the subject matter will be anathema to some (though why a band rooted in medieval folk tales and mythology is any more absurd than the 1984-style political fearmongering of so many thrash bands, or the shameless gore-worship of the death metal scene, I don’t now), but the fact of the matter is that the band have utterly immersed themselves in their source material. Instead of delivering it with a knowing wink and a shamefaced attempt at being “ironic”, the five members of Old Corpse Road commit themselves with such integrity and wholehearted dedication to their craft as to be utterly immune to the slings and arrows of their detractors.
A song like “The Crier of Claiffe”, with its primal sense of rhythm and sublime, multi-faceted vocal layers – both gloriously melodic and gruesomely menacing in equal measure – stands shoulder to shoulder with the morbid savagery of “Isobel – Queen of Scottish Witches” and the glorious grimness of “Glassensikes at Witching Hour”, each song possessing a striking individuality, yet united by a common thread of simple, yet unquestionable, passion.
I’m not sure if it’s fair to call this a concept album, when the whole identity and ethos of the band itself is based on a central conceptual conceit. Rather, let us say that the band’s debut album is a perfect summation of Old Corpse Road – their sound, their skill, their entire sense of self.
What more could you ask for?