The Porcelain Throne: Witchfinder General
Bringing Doom to the Throne of Porcelain Glory
When people look at the history of Doom Metal, the timeline starts with Black Sabbath (duh) and leaps ahead a few years to the debuts of Trouble, Saint Vitus, Pentagram and Candlemass. However, there is one band that often gets overlooked by the masses: Witchfinder General. Some of you have heard the band given lip service in the history of Doom Metal and NWOBHM, but I believe Witchfinder General deserve more respect than is often given. They deserve to be raised high on their own Porcelain Throne.
I first heard Witchfinder General when I came across their eponymous song during a late night Doom research session. The song entranced me. The weight of the riff, the thundering of the drums and the high-pitched shrieks grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me violently until after three minutes and fifty-one seconds of pure aggression I was let go. To this day, it remains alongside “Gloves of Metal” as one of my favorite Heavy Metal songs of all time.
Named after the Vincent Price movie of the same name, Witchfinder General formed in Stourbridge, England during the fall of 1979. After a few months of practice the band played their first show on June 16th, 1980 at The Crown Tavern in Dudley, UK to a surprisingly decent sized crowd. After a handful of shows and a few line-up changes, the band was ready for the studio. In a single afternoon of recording the band had their first release, Burning A Sinner 7″, on wax, and in early 1981 it was released. What would follow was to be a handful of more line-up changes and only a small number of releases (the focus for today) before the band initially called it quits in 1984. In 2006 the band reformed for a brief stint with a new lead singer and recorded new material, but since then have remained dormant. Though more infamously known and panned by critics at the time for their risqué album covers (which featured a topless Joanne Latham), Witchfinder General is a musical force to be reckoned with and will go down in history as a seminal Doom Metal band.
Soviet Invasion 12 inch EP (1982)
Witchfinder General, now consisting of vocalist Zeeb Parkes, guitarist Phil Cope, Bassist Kevin “Toss” McCready and drummer Steve Kinsell, recorded Soviet Invasion in the winter of 1981 however, the EP was not released until the summer of 1982. This EP consists of 3 songs; “Soviet Invasion”, “Rabies” and “R.I.P (live)”. “Soviet Invasion” is a song that takes on the political strife of the cold war and fear of the atomic bomb. It starts with a subtle acoustic intro (a technique later used on Death Penalty) that gives way to a rock solid slab of Doom Metal. Throughout the song the acoustic guitar is shadowed in the background to create the haunting atmosphere needed for the lyrics. “Rabies” and “R.I.P” both highlight Phil Cope’s early riff structures and song-writing capabilities while also showing Zeeb Parkes’ lyrical beginnings.
Death Penalty (1982)
During the spring of 1982 Witchfinder General returned to the studio, this time as a three-piece, and recorded their debut LP in a mind-boggling two days time. The band show a more refined and tighter sound than on their previous EP and deliver an intricately written full length that many would agree has stood the test of time. It is by no means a technically perfect album; there are many mistakes on the record that the band members openly admit, but it only adds to the atmosphere and vibe of this Doom masterpiece. Zeeb Parkes flexes his eccentric vocal style and expands his repertoire as a lyricist with subjects that range from self-anguish, drug usage, murder, lust, horror, witches and witchfinders. His high-pitched shrieks may be off-putting at first, but under further analysis you come to realize how perfect a match they truly are to the music. Not having enough time to recruit a fourth member, Phil Cope recorded both guitar and bass on the album. By mixing the sludgy low tuned riffs of Black Sabbath and the quick complexities of NWOBHM acts such as Iron Maiden and Saxon, Cope solidifies his place as one of Doom’s greatest riff dealers on Death Penalty.
Friends of Hell (1983)
At the start of 1983, after a year without gigging, Witchfinder General started writing material for their sophomore album and entered the studio in March. This time taking a full two weeks to record (still almost unheard of by today’s standards!) the band refined their sound with guitar and vocal dubbing to create a crisper sounding album. Shying away from the twice used acoustic intro, Friends of Hell opens with a powerhouse of a riff that is “Love on Smack.” The blistering solos of Phil Cope run wild throughout this album, weaving effortlessly between his thundering riffs of Doom. Cope really becomes his own on Friends of Hell. You can still feel the influences of Iommi (which could be said with a wide variety of rock and metal), but he does a wonderful job of blazing his own trail of heavy riffing and song structure. With this release Zeeb shows how he has matured as both a lyricist and vocalist, telling tales of sacrifice, the sanctity of music, the confusion of life, depression and death. The titled track fuses together Zeeb and Cope’s individual grandeur to create a Doom epic of admirable proportions. Though not as highly regarded by many as Death Penalty, Friends of Hell stands strong as a stepping stone for all Doom Metal to follow.
After Friends of Hell the band went on a short tour and recorded a live show that was later released in 2006 as Witchfinder General Live ’83, but they didn’t make it much longer than that. In the beginning of 1984 the band started writing their third album but due to label changes and lack of funding it never happened. After a few short years of being plagued by line-up changes, delayed album release dates and negative mainstream critical reception, Witchfinder General ceased to be.
In 2006 the band announced its reformation and advertised a tryout for a new vocalist. After 2 years they released Resurrected, a “comeback” album that, much like fellow Porcelain Thrown dwellers Cirith Ungol, just fell flat when compared to their early work. The riffs are solid, but the vocal performance fall short; the two integral components of the band do not have the chemistry that is evident on Death Penalty and Friends of Hell.
Despite their lackluster third album, Witchfinder General remain one of my favorite Heavy Metal bands and deserve a place on The Porcelain Throne. I bid you all to spend time with their brand of Doom Metal and enjoy THE RIFF.
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