The third full-length of Scotland's wicked chosen son arrives at long last.
With exceptional skill comes an exceptional reputation, and few can claim to have one as well-received or universally-embraced as James McBain, the mastermind behind the Scottish, Blackened-Speed Metal powerhouse known as Hellripper. For nearly a decade, James has been slaying his fans, and the competition with a set of lightning-fast riffs and solos combined with eerily demonic vocals that craft a wondrously anthemic album that has set the bar for the genre this year.
But — what lies within Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags?
Depth. Versatility. The flirtation of a heavy-hitting catch.
All these charms work for James in a way that shan't be understated. From the get-go, it's clear that the man isn't messing around, as a drum-fill kickstart brings listeners through wrought-iron gates to the foggy hills of the Scottish highlands, in the explosive entrance, The Nuckelavee.
It's a devilish little siren song that works better than any of the man's tricks to-date. Pacing is segmented brilliantly; the clear-cut notions of compositions are prevalent with such textbook awareness that one can't help but call back to their favorite songs from the early scene. Wailing guitars in the pre-chorus, furious frets that give the most seasoned black metal artists a run for their money, and a chorus with a money-shot title cry that is thrust upon audiences with the urge to repeat it without context. It's no wonder that this track was selected as the flag-bearer for such a monolithic longplay. It glorious rides into battle with tattered fabric and sword held high, as a trilling solo comes spilling out just after the three-minute marker. It's just as powerful as the first time one hears Metallica's Fight Fire With Fire, and just as memorable. There are processes taking place here that scream a new renaissance to the subgenre, and it's more than excitement that delivers this wildly lengthy paragraph to the tune of just the first song on the album — it's just the first stop on the craziest ride of the year, and it's only February.
The topic of versatility came up, didn't it?
The reach of this wizard is staggering. In one hand, a listener can snag a sample of the title track, in all of its slow, and even wonder. Somewhere between a Castlevania theme and Dark Thrones and Black Flags, the song has moving hooks that trace a delta down each measure, breaking only to push massive power chords in a progression that works so satisfyingly that they're equally impressive as the solo that is stretched across the canyon of the first and second verse, a move that only serves to staircase the score up to a jarring ambient bridge of acoustics and echoed vocals that carry both a range, and another wailing guitar that sings in the far hills from way in the distance. It's a benchmark for James, and a sure sign that the pandemic was not an idle time for the man.
On the other hand, there are curve balls from his past that manifest in the form of The Hissing Marches, a kind of musical poetry that sings to the ancestors, an apparent love for Motörhead and Toxic Holocaust on the wind. This song is a blaze of showmanship, tackling not only the most pure of punk sounds, but a healthy respect for those who came before. Scales that soar up and down, a galloping drum, isolated bass and guitar riffs, and grisly 80's punk-rock chord mockingbird song that could just as easily stand in the Ace of Spades category as it could the Overdose of Death category. There's discipline, and active listening at work here.
The turns are sharp within. From adventurous tunes like The Cursed Carrion Crown, and deeply syncopated melodies that take center-stage on Poison Womb (The Curse of the Witch), there is a lot of variety to choose from, making this a decidedly simple choice for converting casual listeners to die-hards. With a climactic ending to cap off an astounding final romp through the hills of this latest offering on Mester Stoor Worm, it's a ballroom dance outro that sets a stark contrast in tone from the rest of the catalogue. It's melancholic, mournful, almost sorry to remove its presence. In terms of song arrangement, it's a smart move that works to bookend the album with a victorious feeling that changes the atmosphere of the album between when it starts, and finishes.
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is a dangerous animal. With this latest feat of audio engineering, James has taken flight in ways that many who haven't watched his career grow don't understand. Just over five years ago, this was an artist whose solo efforts were grand presentations of guitar work that weren't slowed at all by digital elements, and low budget production values that would normally cripple most artists, or be handled like a crutch.
In the year 2023, Hellripper has become a flagship of modern Blackened-Thrash Metal with some of the finest production, the most impressive lyrical content, and a vast arsenal of weapons-grade guitar riffs, licks, and solos that are not only damn difficult to replicate; they're an indispensable facet of the man's sound that bring a shock and awe factor to virtually every highly-anticipated release.
We, the metal community, should be proud of seeing one of our own ascend to the heights reserved only for the gods. The only question is — where will his powers of destruction take him next?
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is out February 17th, courtesy of Peaceville Records! Head over to Bandcamp and pick up your copy before they sell out! Stay tuned for another surprise next week as we'll celebrate this stellar release further.