“Breakneck pace” is a much-abused term in descriptions of heavy metal, but for the latest Hellripper album it is 100% accurate. If you still have a functioning neck after listening to Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, physiotherapists across the globe would like a word.
It’s a 44-minute blackened speed/thrash masterpiece. At no point is there a single wasted moment. The pace truly does not let up from start to finish: even the slowest song, the title track, rips along at incredible speed. This is doubly impressive given that, at just over seven minutes long, its runtime is only eclipsed by the eight-and-a-half-minute closing track.
The solo project of multi-instrumentalist James McBain, Hellripper is pure first-wave black metal worship. Drawing most obviously from influences like Venom, Motorhead, and Slayer (check out the opening of ‘The Cursed Carrion Crown’ for a superb homage to ‘Angel of Death’), McBain does everything himself barring occasional guest spots and the mastering. This makes the whole thing all the more impressive, frankly. Almost everything you hear, from the thunderous drums to the incredible guitar work to the truly demonic screams, is the work of one man.
McBain’s work on this album is a marked step up from its similarly-great predecessor The Affair of the Poisons. The compositions are tighter, the overall sound is more mature, and his ability to blend everything in the mix into a coherent sound is much stronger. The mastering, courtesy of Damian Herring, gives everything an excellent polish, smoothing out the rougher lo-fi edges of previous albums. Possibly the only complaint is that, barring the opening bars of ‘The Hissing Marshes,’ the bass gets somewhat lost in the mix. But that is quite literally the only concern.
Otherwise, it’s a truly spectacular way to spend three quarters of an hour. I recommend cracking open a cold can of the beer (named Goat Juice) released by Black Iris Brewery to promote the album and drinking it while listening to the album as loudly as possible on good quality speakers. If, that is, you can stop windmilling long enough to get a sip in.
Particular musical highlights include the bludgeoning riffs and terrifying scream that open ‘The Cursed Carrion Crown;’ the groovy bass intro of ‘The Hissing Marshes;’ and the truly impressive bagpipe work on the title track courtesy of piper Antonio Rodriguez. ‘Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags’ is a properly bombastic tune, smashing through its seven-minute runtime with colossal riffs, with which the bagpipes blend seamlessly. More experimental flourishes like this, and the brief flashes of acoustic instrumentation on tracks like ‘Goat Vomit Nightmare’ would be very welcome on future albums. It feels like a confident step forward in musicianship to drop in such moments without them feeling incongruous.
Elsewhere, the album’s closing track ‘Mester Stoor Worm’ is truly excellent. Astonishing shredding, the unholy matrimony of abyssal howls and demonic shrieks, and some truly furious drumming make it an absolute belter of a track. But what makes it truly shine is the brief breakdown just after the seven-minute marker, where the guitar stands triumphantly alone. It’s a very quick moment, acting both as the climax of the song, and of the whole album, but it works so well. The listener feels as triumphant as the hero in the lyrics: “Free for the first time, they welcome the sun.” The Stoor Worm is a huge worm-like beast from the folklore of the Orkney Islands – similar to Jormungandr, the world serpent of Norse mythology – and defeated by the hero Assipattle. That line, and the climax of the music, represent Assipattle’s victory over the Stoor Worm, with the hero riding off into the sunset as the music fades.
Scottish folklore pervades the album; the opening track is dedicated to a nasty creature by the name of the Nuckelavee, a skinless, carnivorous man/horse hybrid. To fully elaborate on its terrors takes up more room than the review can really afford, but suffice it to say, it’s not a creature you want to come across on a sunset stroll along the beach. Elsewhere, ‘I, the Deceiver’ references the meetings of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (inspired by Scottish folk tales), while ‘The Cursed Carrion Crown’ examines the fabled cannibalistic Sawney clan.
As grim and nasty as the lyrical subject matter can be, there’s less of the camp, B-horror approach that defined works like The Affair of the Poisons. It’s closer to true folk-horror in the vein of The Wicker Man or In The Earth than the Hammer horror schtick of previous albums. But don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a bad thing. It helps differentiate Warlocks Grim… from its predecessors while maintaining a stylistic and thematic continuity. But note that I said there’s less of that campy schtick: it still lingers in tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “666 serpents rise from the cunt of the beast.”
All in all, Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, is a superb achievement, of which McBain should rightly feel very proud. Blackened speed-metal has never sounded so fun, and I cannot wait for the next album.
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is out now on Peaceville Records and can be purchased here.
Words: Nick Dunn