Electric Wizard: "Black Masses" - CD Review

Doom metal doesn't get much doomier than this: the deep, dark, occult-obsessed creations of British quartet Electric Wizard have been melting minds for around 18 years in one incarnation or another – guitarist/vocalist Jus Oborn is the only original member remaining – but it was after their 2007 release Witchcult Today that they really began to rise up from the underground and command the attention of the world with their ultra-loud evil sound. Pulling together decades of inspirations including '60s psychedelia, Sabbath-era hard rock, '80s occult metal and modern British metal – all of it filtered through, in their own words, “endless loops of exploitation horror cinema” and “super-sleazy 70s necro-porn” – the wizards of doom have summoned the dark forces again for Black Masses, which makes its North American CD debut tomorrow. Read on for the full review!

Just about every metal band makes a point of telling you how heavy their latest project sounds, but after six records filled with some of the loudest rock in existence, Electric Wizard really don't need to sell anyone on the idea of their own massiveness. Instead, they've been refining and expanding their sonic palette, adding more textures and layers, cleaning out the mud  and strengthening their rhythms. Oborn and company (including Liz Buckingham on guitar, bassist Tas Danazoglou and Shaun Rutter on drums) are totally old-school when it comes to capturing their signature tone, and for Black Masses they went again with a vintage analog recording setup (remember when bands recorded music on stuff called “tape?”) at London's Toerag Studios, with Grammy-winning producer Liam Watson returning to the boards. The result gives the production a classic touch, even when it's pushing the loudness envelope beyond nearly anything out there in modern metal. Be careful if you jack up the volume on this one before you press play... unless you're ready to get hurt.

“Black Mass” opens the record with a feedback-laced blast and launches immediately into a dark mid-tempo grind that's simple but irresistible. The production gives the instruments a dense, claustrophobic feel, but it still fills your speakers to overflowing and it's low and heavy enough to liquefy your bones. Together with Oborn's distant but intense and resonant vocals, this one sets the menacing tone for what's to come. Sudden metallic screeching takes you into “Venus in Furs” – not a cover of the Velvet Underground classic, but taking the same novel as its theme (which also inspired a very weird but fun Jess Franco flick). There's a little more room for a tight guitar solo here, and some cool reverse-reverb voice effects, though it does get a little repetitious. The awesome “Night Child” opens with gothic church bells and banshee-like moans before the memorable intro riff rolls in, which together with the massive chorus is among the album's best hooks – plus this cut also benefits from the creepiest lyrics.

“Patterns of Evil” is driven by another of the Wizard's best sleazy riffs, sounding even more massive here, emphasizing the slightly cleaner vocals and allowing a grimy wah-wah lead to slip in and out, serpent-like. The epic “Satyr IX” (a play on the word “saturnine”) begins as a more muted, down-tempo dirge, but the slowly rising and falling drone is still powerful, repeating for two minutes before the vocals finally come in and never changing until halfway into the song's massive ten-minute length, when it switches off for another repeating pattern... strangely enough, the riffs are cool enough they never really get old. The trippy and chaotic “Turn Off Your Mind” is fat and massive and swirls with weird high-pitched guitar effects and samples, but it's not as focused as the tracks that come before it. “Scorpio Curse” has the punchiest percussion and best guitar solos on the album, plus a cool mid-range riff blended with the dark doomy rhythms. The album closes with the sprawling, atmospheric 9-minute instrumental “Crypt of Drugula” – a nod to the earlier “Satanic Rites of Drugula” from Witchcult Today. It's all buzzing, circling drones, slow ritual drumming and gothic thunderclaps... not a dynamic track, but a great lights-out horror piece.

There's a good reason why Electric Wizard have staked out a solid claim in the doom metal genre: they're not just aiming to be the lowest, sludgiest and loudest – although they pretty much hit all that – they're also really skilled with a hook, which is an absolute must if your riffs and melodies take longer to play out. A lot of these songs are more than just dark, scary and gut-punching; they're also catchy, which is probably what gives the band their staying power. It's also cool that they finally started to establish a bigger following a few years back with Witchcult, and Black Masses should get them even more positive attention around the world this year.