Occult-themed progressive rock unit Blood Ceremony do more than just embrace the black magic trappings that have gone hand-in-hand with hard rock and metal for well over four decades; their music often captures the feel of a genuine pagan ritual – one that would not have felt out of place among the decadent gatherings of Aleister Crowley. One of the band's most noteworthy assets is lead vocalist Alia O'Brien, a welcome presence in the largely male-dominated occult/doom rock genres, offering an ethereal balance to the ominous riffs and haunting chords, and her addition of keyboards and flute lend a warmer tone and distinct changes in texture recalling the golden era of progressive rock. Their vintage delivery of sinister occult themes made them a natural opening act for Swedish devil-rockers Ghost, with whom they played on the "13 Dates of Doom" North American tour, and their profile got a much-deserved boost as a result; their latest offering The Eldritch Dark finds them at the top of their wicked game, and is the most masterful of their three studio albums.
The first two tracks are a solid summation of all the band's strengths; the commanding opener "Witchwood" is dark, ominous and atmospheric thanks to a thumping bass line and soaring chords from both guitar and organ. O'Brien's vocal tone is bright and pure, but also earthy, further establishing the band's folk-rock roots. Following up is "Goodbye Gemini," which puts the flute melodies front and center while simultaneously rocking out with a snarky guitar riff and male/female vocal harmonies, showcasing the full range of the band's skills... and not surprisingly, it's also the first single. Take a listen:
Fans of classic horror will no doubt perk up at the title of "Lord Summerisle," which is indeed an homage to the amazing 1973 film The Wicker Man, or more specifically the memorable character in that film played by the legendary Christopher Lee. This acoustic-based piece is lighter than most of the tracks on the album; it has a folksy, outdoorsy feel and is decidedly pagan in tone – fitting very well with the themes of the film, which itself featured many pagan ceremonial songs. As of this writing you can still stream the entire track on Pitchfork, so be sure to give it a spin. That style gets amped up for "Ballad of the Weird Sisters," with a rolling country/folk-rock groove including flourishes of violin.
The title track proves the band can go full Gothic when needed, capturing a slightly mischievous, chaotic black mass atmosphere with the aid of haunting organ riffs. The mood is reversed for the hooky harmonies of "Drawing Down the Moon” and the playful, pastoral "Faunus," both of which represent the band's lighter side and prove how well they can capture the full range of emotions with the same toolkit. But things don't stay free and easy for long, as they soon call down the darkness for a mammoth 8-minute coda. Oliver Haddo, the villain from W. Somerset Maugham's 1908 novel The Magician, was the subject of an earlier Blood Ceremony song (from their previous album Living with the Ancients), and returns as the theme of the closing track – oddly enough titled “The Magician.” Haddo was Maugham's own fictional take on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley, and the hedonistic paganism of the character is fertile ground for the band's mesmerizing but also wildly decadent delivery.
I'm starting to think that Blood Ceremony is on track to overtake audiences in much the same manner of their tour-mates Ghost; their overall concept is similar, in that it brings a warm, vintage feel to otherwise seriously dark and diabolical subject matter, but their style is distinctly their own, with a woodsy, pagan vibe that draws as much from ancient occult rites as it does '60s radio rock. It's no surprise that the two bands were a perfect pairing (and a huge hit) on last year's tour, and I'm already looking forward to another one.