Friday, September 22, 2017

Witch - Salem's Rise (1985)

There are obscurities and then there are OBSCURITIES, and being printed in a limited run of a hundred copies on a US imprint that, so far as I can tell, existed only to promote this band and a solo release from one of its members, Salem's Rise is unlikely to exist in its corporeal form for a few friends, family members, and perhaps a tiny pool of hardcore collectors and heavy metal fans that dug it up somewhere. No, it's far more probable that to experience this sole work of Ohio's Witch, not to be confused with California's Witch, or the Dinosaur Jr. spin-off Witch, you'll have had to run across it online like the rest of us schlubs. Now, whether or not this debut even deserves a cursory listen via the intertrons is debatable...

In fairness, this record is a lot less crude than I thought it would be from looking at it. That's not to say that I hate its cover artwork, as it exudes a certain type of base nostalgia and charm around this time of year; but there's no denying that it looks like a high school project; the wispier hair of its subject almost at odds with the finer detail of its eyes and eyebrows, I am almost reminded of DC's Klarion the Witch Boy character if he were a little older, high and paranoid off a fat spliff, and having a disagreeable hair day. But it's got the pentagram straight in the bottom center, the primitive logo and title which look like they were some attempt at stenciling an old English font, and perhaps its most important detail, the Eargasm Productions iconography in its bottom left corner. Ugly as sin, indeed, but all things considered, transports me back to a time in which I'd scribble and color witches and warlocks from my 1st edition AD&D adventures into my notebooks, which, coincidentally, was around the same time this album dropped.

Musically, I was fairly impressed by how polished Salem's Rise is sounding, especially when you consider the limited resources and distribution, and lower budget that must have gone into this. The guitar tone is clear and workmanlike, the bass-lines throbbing and evident, and the percussion has a nice, old school sound to it which pops along with the rhythm guitars. Leads are simple but chosen well, and just bright enough to remain distinct from the backdrop. Vocals are well represented in the mix, and in strict adherence to the practices of their era, placed much in the forefront of the album, especially when you consider that they are hands down the weakest component of the recording. At best, you're getting blue collar, bar-band level quality which wouldn't have stood a chance in hell against the charismatic greats of the 80s, but even prove lackluster in terms of honest hometown, homegrown heavy metal, a mid-range, ambition-less delivery which becomes all the goofier when the singer 'Ace' tries to pitch out a few screams. He's not particularly terrible, and certainly knows how to frame a chorus, but he's just never interesting enough to remember here.

Another flaw on the recording is in its mild stylistic consistencies. Much of the music is a laid back heavy metal or hard rock style redolent of Judas Priest, Steppenwolf and Accept, if lacking the punch and power of the band's precursors. Occasionally, though, some sleazier, lame duck rock groove pollutes the tracks as in "Beckon", which is also one of the tunes where the vocals are experimented with a lot more and sound corny as hell, especially where he seems a little unable to finish hitting the pitch while belting out the song title in the chorus. They also experiment with a little of the proggy synths circa early Ozzy, as on "Will I See You Tonight", but once again the music is spoiled by the higher pitched vocals whose reach cannot exceed their grasp. Salem's Rise is the sound of a band just getting its feet wet, not quite positive where it's going to end up, and there's a lack of confidence and delivery that drag it well below the hidden gem category, not to mention that, even at their most functional, the riffs are just nothing special whatsoever in a year which produced works like Metal Heart, Branded & Exiled, Walls of Jericho and The Specter Within.

I was drawn to check out the record years ago by its potential theme, however, since I'm a huge fan of cult horror, and the band definitely seems to share this passion with anthems of monsters, mythology, and black magic, with subjects ranging from "Loki" and "Lady Medusa" to "Teen of Darkness" and the title track. The bad new is that, beyond the titles and lyrics and the fact that it's heavy metal in the first place, it just doesn't cultivate these topics well enough, or the vocals are just so vapid in their delivery that they ruin the rest, such as the peppy doom grooves of "Salem's Rise" itself, or the pitch issues in closer "Something Evil", which otherwise is perhaps the strongest song on the album. It's never capable of cashing in on its nostalgia with creepy melodies or atmospheres, or evil sounding lyrical lines, and ultimately there's just so little point to listening to when I could just spin Fatal Portrait or Love You to Pieces for the millionth time each and be infinitely more engaged.

Witch was not complete garbage, though, and there are clearly dreams, ideas, and riffs here which with further molding and a better front man might have developed into something cult. There are thousands of such records out there by bands who met for a couple years, in a garage, in a basement, in an attic loft, a studio space, and riffed out some heavy fucking metal, smoked and drinked, played for their friends, their ladies, their dudes, and lived it...if just for a little while, during the Golden Age of the medium. And, whatever their flaws, whatever hurdle they couldn't leap, you can't ever take that away from them. Why would you?

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

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