Witchkiss - The Austere Curtains of Our Eyes - (7/10)
Published on November 22, 2018
Bands that take themselves seriously: a blessing or a curse? In the doom metal arena, one tends to think of almost every band as serious, so fart jokes and Avril Lavigne covers might be in rather poor taste. Then again, a host of overwrought doom groups exist that belabour the point about spiritual suffering and bodily torment until listeners can only snigger at their lyrics and browse the internet while they hopelessly await a change of riff. Witchkiss, at first glance, look to fall into that category with an album title like The Austere Curtains of Our Eyes and a paltry three-member line-up that cannot possibly have guitar attractions foremost in their minds. A glance at hyperbolic song titles such as “A Crippling Wind” and “A Harrowing Solace” seem to confirm that this debut full-length, originally released independently but now out on Argonauta Records, takes a direct and unashamed route to cliché.
This stereotype of po-faced melancholy is certainly true of the doom metal community, so why is it different for sludge? Bands like Neurosis, Yob, and Ufomammut can get away with enormous feats of soul-wringing under the condition that, if they are heavy enough, the music will be classified as “ugly” and “truthful” rather than sappy and insubstantial. A sludge metal band that doesn’t sing about something weighty may be accused of being just as ridiculous as those crying black tears of doom. Astute readers have surely guessed that Witchkiss tread a fine line between the two extremes, while their music savours of both doom and sludge, the former genre appearing in the slow tempos and haunting use of clean vocals, the latter conjured by the gritty guitar tone and Hulk-esque bellows of Scott Prater.
Regarding the serious tendencies of the New York state trio, the lyrics themselves prove less of a challenge than the song dynamics, since the dual vocalist team of Prater and drummer Amber Burns are largely in the realms of sound and feel rather than exact enunciation. The strangled hardcore shout of the guitarist is joined by Burns’s drawling cleans most notably on “Death Knell” and “Blind Faith”, while she also takes over “Seer” for the most part of its seven minute runtime. Neither singer is particularly tuneful, steering the vocals well away from sobbing gothic territory and into a parallel dimension where Crowbar mainman Kirk Windstein gets together with a drunk Dorthia Cottrell of Windhand, which sounds like a marriage with lots of bottle-smashing and slamming of doors. That doesn’t entirely preclude the kind of morbid duet that was feared though, the album finishing with a single acoustic guitar strumming along as the pair croon through a mantra of “Come sweet death / Save me from this hell.” That the final line alters to “Come my sweetest friend / Save me from myself,” should indicate that the effect is much closer than expected to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”.
The brief closer is not the only instance of Witchkiss dropping all pretence of being a heavy band, because “Death Knell” is a longer trawl through clean playing that threatens to burst out at times into the full band sound, but barely even uses percussion to maintain its air of ethereal tension for five minutes. On the other hand, opener “A Crippling Wind” hints at none of this diversity, stomping its way through angry, pained sludge in arresting monotony. “Blind Faith” is a compromise between the two styles, drawing the piece out to 12 minutes by repeatedly transitioning from clean introspection to triumphant slowness, also taking in a kind of drawling chorus courtesy of Burns that matches well with the syrupy groove rumbling below.
Comparing the stifling first track and sparse final one, one could say that The Austere Curtains of Our Eyes runs the gamut through the permutations of Witchkiss’s sound, exploring several avenues without drastically changing mood or sounding inappropriate, which is definitely to the band’s credit. Fans of conventional sludge and doom might not enjoy all six songs equally, while the doomsters are advised to approach with caution, since there are no guitar solos nor any hugely memorable riffs onto which to lash their ears during times of emotional turbulence. What should be said in closing about the album is that – surprisingly, at only 42 minutes – catharsis is reached by the end despite the unconventional method taken to arrive. For a debut, that’s a fine achievement.