For a change, here's one of those bands who have emerged after a long break with new material that I don't remember from back in the day. Then again, before the advent of the internet and before the reach of a European magazine like Metal Hammer expanded to the UK, it was tough for bands outside "traditional countries" to get in front of listeners, even if they sang in English. Tommy Vance did play Axewitch on the Friday Rock Show but a few months before I discovered it (and rock music). So I guess I have to find out about them in 2021!
Long story short, it looks like members of a couple of bands, Haze and Black Stone, got together in the late seventies to form a new band, Hazy. After a few years, that grew into Axewitch, a better name for the new decade and, based on the sound here, they fit the style of the NWOBHM era well, rooted in a very seventies hard rock sound but with a little more punk aggressiveness. Their debut album was The Lord of Flies in 1983 and they released another couple over the next two years, before splitting up in 1987. Excepting a brief blip in 1991, they stayed gone until a 25th anniversary reunion show sparked a reunion in 2017. This is their first album since and only bass player Björn Hernborg wasn't part of the original Axewitch, having joined in 2012.
They haven't updated their sound to add anything contemporary, which means that they sound exactly like the sort of band who would have recorded a Friday Rock Show session in the mid eighties. They're good at what they do but what they do isn't particularly original, so they're rather doomed to the sort of career they've had: a few reliable albums with dubious covers on an indie label; enough quality for a fanbase to build but not enough originality to get truly noticed; and then a long period split up that only returns them to the studio in their fortieth anniversary year.
There are ten new songs here, plus a couple of reworked tracks from their 1982 demo that didn't make it onto any of those older albums. They're Nightmare and Axewitch and, together with the other track on that demo that isn't revisited here, a cover of Judas Priest's Beyond the Realms of Death, it's clear who their primary influence were. Vocalist Anders Wallentoft doesn't even try for Rob Halford's high notes, but the wailing guitars on Axewitch and the general structure of both those songs is obviously taken straight from the Judas Priest textbook. Axewitch sounds like the Priest. Nightmare sounds like Priest covering Blue Öyster Cult and those two bands are still at the core of Axewitch's sound.
The Pusher opens up the album with Priest front and centre, but a slightly newer Priest, more British Steel than Sad Wings of Destiny, being less progressive and less ambitious but still built out of Priest riffs and melodies. A lot of this album comes from that particular commercial Priest era, before their later dabbling in guitar synths or speed metal. It's a great way to kick off Axewitch's first album in 36 years. I don't remember you, but welcome back!
In Pitch Black Darkness shifts back to Blue Öyster Cult, a little longer and a little more progressive but with Hernborg's bass setting the tone as much as the guitars of Magnus Jarl and Mikael Johansson. It doesn't just aim to rock, like The Pusher; it also aims to set a mood, a heavy and prowling one that has resonance. It returns for Dues to Pay, Boogie of Death and Going Down and more.
To my ears, Wallentoft's voice fits this approach better, as he doesn't have the range of a Rob Halford, or the sheer power of an Udo Dirkschneider either, on a song like Let Sleeping Dogs Lie which updates that commercial Priest sound to mid-eighties Accept, but he does have the breadth of an Eric Bloom, able to move easily from the light to the dark or the heavy, whichever contrast he's looking for. I'd bet that he could go softer to an AOR sound or harder towards power metal without any hardship at all.
I enjoyed this from the outset, but I thought that some of that was flavoured by nostalgia. I found the genre in 1984 and devoured everything I could find for much of that decade, so anything that takes me back to that magic time tends to sound better to me than it might actually be. However, after a point, I realised that I was enjoying this album on its own merits, nostalgia be damned. I'm not sure exactly where that point was, but it's in somewhere in the middle of the album. It's as if Axewitch introduced us with a Priest style song and a BÖC style song so we knew where they came from and then began to blend those styles with increasing success.
I liked the early songs, but I love Boogie of Death, Going Down and The Healer. They have those Priest riffs and BÖC moods, with little hints at Accept power and even Cinderella glam, while staying within a traditional heavy metal framework. They all move with calculated style, finding grooves and nailing them down. There's a patience in here, even when they're scooting along nicely. This was always going to be at least a 7/10 but I'm seriously thinking about upping that to an 8/10 now. Maybe after another listen.