Feb 142023

(Andy Synn waxes philosophical in this latest edition of “The Best of British”)

I’ve been accused – more than once – of “overthinking things”, especially when it comes to music… or movies… or, indeed, art of any form.

So today I’ve decided that the best thing to do is to lean into these accusations by asking some, ahem, “deep”, philosophical questions during this particular edition of “The Best of British”.


What is the purpose of a debut album?

Well, obviously, it’s to introduce listeners to your music. That’s a given. But it’s also to provide yourself with a firm foundation from which to build something even bigger, and better.

That’s not intended as a back-handed compliment by the way – …In the Absence of Light is unquestionably a damn good album, delivering some of the most morbidly grim, monolithically heavy Death/Doom this side of Monotheist, along with a few Autopsy-esque aggro-anthems (“Temple of Decay”, “Veil of Transformation”) that serve to up the tempo nicely at key moments.

But the album’s biggest strength is how much it promises for next time especially during songs such as “Among Dead Gods”, “In The Shadow of the Sleeping Monarch” and “Esoteric Mirrors” (arguably the record’s best track) where the band’s My Dying Bride influence and nascent ambient/atmospheric ambitions combine with their love of gargantuan grooves and devastating sonic density to hint at one possible direction for the group’s future.

They’re not there yet, of course (extended ambient closer “The Amber Kiss of the Sun” feels like an odd addendum that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album, albeit one which is still suggestive of the band’s more esoteric ambitions) but with their debut album Grief Symposium have definitely planted their flag in some fertile soil, and only time will tell what monstrous things may grow from it if the group can successfully fuse the disparate sides of their identity next time around.


What is it that draws us so strongly to the past, to reliving and recreating a bygone era? More specifically, what is it about Metal fans/bands (though we’re far from the only ones guilty of this) that makes us so susceptible to nostalgia in this form?

In a lot of cases, let’s be honest, it’s just bands playing it safe – what’s been popular in a previous generation (or generations) has been proven to be effective, so why not stick with what works? But there’s also, in the rarest and best cases, an unabashed, unashamed, and unquestionable love that fuels an artist’s decision to keep things “Old School”… and, to my ears at least, that’s always been the driving force behind James McBain, aka Hellripper, and his proudly anthemic, irresistibly head-bangable brand of Blackened Thrash/Speed Metal.

What makes …Withered Hags stand out as his best work yet, however (despite a bit of flagging energy and saggy songwriting in the middle) is the fact that, more than anything else, it feels like a product of now – an album that couldn’t exist without the lessons learned and scars we’ve earned over the last however many decades – but still stays true to the ethos of the genre’s early years.

The sheer tightness of “The Nuckelavee”, for example – both sonically and structurally there’s not an ounce of fat or wasted space to be found – wouldn’t be possible if McBain hadn’t learned all the right lessons from his predecessors and progenitors (which, if my ears don’t deceive me, might also include taking some lead guitar influence from the early In Flames this time around), nor would the unfettered viciousness of “I, The Deceiver” hit as hard as it does if it didn’t draw clear inspiration from several successive waves of ever-more focussed and furious Black Metal.

And then there’s the absolutely gigantic hooks (both vocally and melodically, including some well-placed, wailing bagpipes) of the titanic title-track (possibly/probably the best song Hellripper have ever produced) and the genre-fusing, boundary-diffusing attack of the climactic “Mester Stoor Worm” (another contender for the title of “best song in the band’s discography”), neither of which would be what they are in a world without the likes of Bathory and VenomSlayer and SodomMetallica and Iron Maiden… and so many more.

But, as always, Hellripper isn’t about just rehashing the past – it’s about bringing it into the present and making it sound as vital and as vibrant as if it had only just burst onto the scene. And …Withered Hags does that better than ever before.


One thing we really need to do is get past this idea that every band’s new album needs to be their “best” release. For one thing, the very question of what is “best” is contentious in itself and, for another, forcing bands to compete with themselves like this can discourage them from experimenting and evolving because they’re too caught up in trying to “beat” their previous record.

Now, if you’ve guessed that I’m going to tell you that The Pain Behind It All isn’t Man Must Die‘s “best” album (that’s still either Peace Was Never An Option or No Tolerance for Imperfection, depending on what day it is) then… well done, you’re one step ahead of the game.

But if you’ve also guessed that it’s arguably the band’s most multi-faceted work yet – even if all those facets aren’t quite polished to the same gleaming perfection just yet – then… give yourself an extra big pat on the back.

I’m not saying there aren’t some straight-up ragers here in the classic Man Must Die mold (of course there are, and songs like hyper-adrenalised opener “Patterns in the Chaos”, the fretboard-mangling “Clickhate”, and bruising pre-release single “Bring Me the Head of the King” provide all the in-your-face aggression and face-melting fury we’ve come to expect from the band) but it’s the deviations from the form – the moody, mid-paced stomp of the title-track (replete with eerie piano embellishments and a sense of doomy, melodic menace), the sullen, sombre intensity of “Enabler” (where frontman Joe McGlynn subtly, but strikingly, adds yet another layer of emotion to his venomous vocal delivery) – which stand out the most.

So while it may not be the band’s “best” work (the sequencing seems a little off, for one thing, with “War Is My Will” sounding like an obvious, and triumphant, finale, leaving the subsequent tracks feeling a tad underwhelming) it may well represent a brand new beginning – especially when you consider the way that the addition of a second guitarist, new boy Alan McFarland, has opened up new melodic and harmonic opportunities for them – for one of the UK’s finest, and fiercest, purveyors of pure metallic punishment.

Pick up a copy of the band’s new album (out this Friday) here.


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