For the most part, Under the Witching Cross picks up where Bewitcher’s self-titled debut album left off. The Portland trio’s blackened speed metal formula is one of the more distinct out there as the typical punky rhythms and raspy shouts are complemented by classic metal guitar work that has a polished flair more in common with Riot or Rainbow than Venom or Midnight. The band never loses sight of the mindless fun factor but there’s evolution at work just beneath the surface.
Bewitcher seems to be exploring their melodic side much more on this album. The band has always had a knack for including slowed down segments or bouncy singalongs in just about every song, but individual tracks really commit themselves to these brighter ventures. The title track immediately stands out for its early Helloween pacing, but it becomes especially apparent on the album’s second half. “In the Sign of the Goat” slows proceedings down to a mid-tempo halt, “Rome Is on Fire” follows it up with a dramatic chant hailing everyone’s favorite Julian-Claudian Dynasty emperors, and “Frost Moon Ritual” makes for an epic instrumental closer.
Fortunately, the band’s more extreme tendencies never feel superfluous in light of the heightened melodicism. The musicians’ energy exertion ensures a gritty edge persisting throughout and the vocals never lose sight of a sleazy delivery. Part of me wonders how the band would sound with a Rock ‘n Rolf-style clean voice up front, but then we wouldn’t have those excellent early Bathory-era vibes on the opening “Savage Lands of Satan.”
This live ready blackened speed style is as easy to make generic as it is hard to screw up, but Under the Witching Cross only emphasizes the unique role that Bewitcher seems to be developing in the scene. It’s great to see the trio expanding their sonic palette while still heeding to a grimy core. I think this is the type of album that could appeal to just about any metalhead, keeping the grit that more extreme fans expect while serving as a potential gateway for melody-minded listeners. These first two albums have been strong, and I can only imagine the same being said for any efforts to follow.
“Upon the Witching Cross”
“In the Sign of the Goat”
“Rome is on Fire”
“Frost Moon Ritual”