Friday 16 June 2023

Burning Witches - The Dark Tower (2023)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
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I've heard a lot about Burning Witches, a Swiss quintet who play a fast and powerful brand of heavy metal, but I don't believe I've heard anything they've done before. And that's on me, because two of their previous four albums were released while I was writing reviews at Apocalypse Later and it seems abundantly clear now that I should have given them a shot. They started out in 2015 and this is their fifth album in only seven years, so they're prolific, but that rapid pace does not result in an inferior release. There's almost an hour of music here and it's all strong.

Sure, a minute of that is dedicated to an intro and there's another minute for an haunted house of an interlude halfway but otherwise this barely slows down for a breath. The only time you'll get an opportunity to relax is Tomorrow, which is the closest thing to a ballad in this style. Otherwise, it's a solid slab of metal, built on a bedrock of classic Iron Maiden before they started extending songs into epics, but with a host of influences to heavy that sound up. Start with Powerslave and pour on a slew of influences, so quickly that they'll often zoom past in glimpses before the next arrives.

Generally, I caught the crunch of Metal Church, the melodic drive of Lizzy Borden and the punch of Arch Enemy, but that's just the start. For instance, I also caught plenty of Judas Priest in the hyper opener proper, Unleash the Beast, but there's Blind Guardian in the chorus and Helloween in the guitar solos, along with some Metallica chug under it all. At the end of the day, it stands on its own as a Burning Witches song and, let's face it, a statement of intent to kick off this album. It doesn't hang around and, while it may remain the most up tempo song after it's all done, it's not by much.

The vocalist is Laura Guldemond, a Dutch singer who joined this group of Swiss musicians for their third album, and she's an excellent front for the band. She has plenty of Doro grit in her voice and a a relish in her delivery that works very well with this material, especially on songs with emphasis and attitude like Evil Witch with its samples to set the bar, and Into the Unknown, where she comes close to a Martin Walkyier approach, spitting out lyrics with venom. However, it's the musicians on the stage behind her that I found myself increasingly focused on, because they're utterly reliable, nailing glorious groove after glorious groove as they barrel along.

I first felt that on Evil Witch, which is a standout track four into the album, but World on Fire isn't far behind and I started to realise how strong the drive is on every song here. I don't know how the two guitarists, Romana Kalkuhl and Larissa Ernst, divvy up their duties between lead and rhythm but, as fun as the solos are, it's the emphatic drive of the rhythm that I found myself amazed by. I can't ignore the crisp production, which helps too, but these two have a habit of building a riff into a juggernaut that's hurtling towards us and has absolutely no intention of stopping.

Once you hear it instead of just taking it for granted, you can't not hear it on every track, from the fast Priest-influenced ones like Unleash the Beast to the slower more Sabbath-inspired songs like Arrow of Time. There's a new Metal Church album out that I'm very much looking forward to, but I started to realise just how much those mainstays of heavy/power metal are going to have to bring their A game to match what Burning Witches did here on songs like Doomed to Die that come right from their songbook.

Add Jeanine Grob's bass to deepen the bottom end and this is a rhythm section so textbook that I'd imagine they're taught in classes. The drummer underpinning them is Lala Frischknecht, who's not just effortlessly there with them throughout but always ready for the magic moment we sit back to admire how tight everything is, because then she'll add another beat to the mix and so increase the emphasis again. As impressive as Guldemond is at the microphone, she's really a bonus in the captain's chair on top of one of the most reliable engine rooms in the business.

I liked this on a first listen, because it's right up my alley, even if I tend to prefer a little more speed in my metal. It was clearly good stuff from the killer opener, but it just got better with every song and every repeat listen. It's clean and melodic, but as powerful and emphatic as power metal gets with a tight delivery that most bands would kill for. How effortlessly tight and heavy is the opening to The Lost Souls, the closer to this album, almost an hour in? I seriously need to check out the four albums that came before this one. I'm certainly not going to miss out the next one. I'm very much on board now.

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