Witchrist- The Grand Tormentor
New Zealand's Witchrist first caught my attention with their debut LP Beheaded Ouroborous: a vile progeny or the corpophagous swarm, slithering and sulking beneath the black, dead soil, searching for the sickeningly sweet scent of Death. It was easily one of the most impressive and enjoyable debuts I have ever had the pleasure to listen to, and left me craving for more. How surprised I was then that The Grand Tormentor was able to sneak up on me: it hit the distros and blogosphere before I even knew what was happening. Needless to say, once I got my hands on the album, I was salivating at the chance to be enveloped in the bands next nightmarish evolution.
Sadly, The Grand Tormentor merely reacquainted me with the evils of high expectations. The album didn't even sound like the Witchrist I knew and loved: instead of the horrifying stew of Archgoat, Incantation and Beherit I was expecting to dine upon, I instead received a pile of ground Bolt Thrower-meets-Asphyx chuck, raw and covered in flies. Not necessarily a bad thing, but also not what I signed up for either. Truth is, The Grand Tormentor is a perfectly fine album in it's own right. The production is wonderful: powerful and static-riddled, each riff landing with sledge-hammer force. The songwriting also holds up to scrutiny: an easy mix of groove and Doom that will no doubt satisfy big fans of Bolt Thrower and Benediction. Needless to say, it's got riffs: "Cast Into Fire" is short. groove-laden and heavy, and will no doubt get heads banging and mosh pits thundering, while "The Tomb" will draw many favorable comparisons to Asphyx with it's slow, monstrous pace and underpinnings of creepy melody. The Grand Tormentor works well for what it is.
And this is also my biggest issue with the album: The Grand Tormentor is a pretty massive departure from the bands previous work, so much so that I just can't get behind it. It may not be objective, but then again music is never truly objective: the value of personal preference is vastly under stated when it comes to the analysis of any album, and disingenuous attempts to curtail it's importance are frankly obnoxious. I simply cannot get into The Grand Tormentor precisely because it is such a massive departure from a direction I vastly preferred. Gone is the atmosphere and dessicated bleakness of Beheaded Ouroborous, replaced with groovy-riffs and monotonous guttural grunts. Many have complained about the bands new vocalist, known as Void, because he lacks the range and rawness of the bands previous vocalist Impecator(these two must have been tortured as children with such names...). I am not one of these people per-se: Void is a very competent growler, and his style fits perfectly with the bands new direction. My issue with his vocal attack comes from my problem with the band new direction more than his performance.
It's true, "Occult" Black/Death like Witchrist played on albums like Beheaded Ouroborous and Curses of Annihilation has become pretty trendy in Death Metal. There are a veritable sea of bands dabbling in occult mysterious and impious practices right now, and I can understand any band wanting to separate themselves from the scene. But why jump from one trendy sound to another? There are just as many "Old-Skull Death Methul" bands rehashing played out Bolt Thrower and Asphyx riffs as there are grimm, lo-fi C'thulhu Cultists mucking about, so I really don't understand the change. And at least the "Occult" Black/Death movement is a new one, born from a revival of classic Death and Black Metal perhaps, but none the less a new phenomenon. Everything about The Grand Tormentor(no doubt a reference to Benediction's The Grand Leveller) feels watered down, from the musical approach to the artwork to the song titles. The Grand Tormentor will no doubt appeal to a larger audience, but it's also missing something that the bands previous work had in spades: personality.
Much like recent albums from Undergang and Cruciamentum, Witchrist have toned down their evil in favor of a more accessible, well-worn sound. And like those recent releases, The Grand Tormentor is a solid album for what it is. And what it is exactly is a large step back, away from downward progression into true nihilism and instead into well tread paths of various beloved forebears. Competency can only get this album so far, but those who are looking for a head-banging good time should seek out The Grand Tormentor. For me, I'll wait for more intoxicating whispers from the dark.