This review has been kicking my ass for weeks now. Not entirely unheard of, to be sure, but this time around it’s proved a pretty damnable little dilemma because I know exactly how I feel about this new Christian Mistress album. I love it. I love it to little bitty pieces. If I was a four-year old, I would build a makeshift cage for Possession in my bedroom and feed it and hug it and sing it songs and probably accidentally kill it by forgetting to give it enough water but I would love it so hard in that perfect way that only children can love things.
You see, the problem is that every time I sit down and attempt to jumble a few of my words into gaudy and overblown sentences about this Christian Mistress record, I just end up getting that glazed-over look like I’ve sat in something warm but decided that I like it. You might call it the crumbling of the critical edifice; you might call it goddamn rock and roll. Possession brings its manifold jams so presently that I can’t seem to get an adequate distance. You’re either with the record – in the record, really – or you’re miles away.
Nevertheless, a few observations escape the album’s orbit. The game plan is still NWOBHM, through and through, so as you listen you’ll undoubtedly hear nods to Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, early Judas Priest, Angel Witch, and so on. But then again, the swagger of “Conviction” could be by way of Van Halen just as easily as Motörhead, so it’s no hopelessly narrow constellation of influences that inform this exhilarating riot.
Christian Mistress’s vocabulary of musical extremity doesn’t even really extend to where NWOBHM’s spindly, working-class roots first tasted the fire and spite of thrash’s nascency. In practical terms, this means that the band exists primarily in a world of licks, not riffs. The songs are dominated by diverse but supremely self-assured rhythmic flourishes, from various speeds of swagger to the shimmy of “Pentagram and Crucifix” and the chugging swing of “The Way Beyond.” Christian Mistress struts, but deservedly so.
The nine songs of Possession are bathed in a glorious, cat-stretched-out-in-a-sun-beam-ingly warm analog production. Each instrument breathes and hums, and each sounds like itself. It’s a sad commentary that one must applaud so loudly when a drum simply sits there sounding like a drum, but there it is. Even though Possession offers ample opportunity for each member of the band to display a crackling instrumental prowess, what most impresses is how they function as a unit, bassist Johnny Wulf and drummer Reuben Storey shifting with worn-in fluidity from tempo to tempo, and guitarists Ryan McClain and Oscar Sparbel skipping from devilishly catchy dual leads to fiery solo trade-off sections.
If there’s any notable change between Agony & Opium and Possession that might give a few fans of the raw and reckless debut album pause, it’s that Possession feels a bit more comfortable in its own skin. It’s ever so slightly laid-back where the debut was hard-charging; it burns slow rather than riding any lightning; where Agony & Opium was a rubber-burning hell-ride fleeing the police, Possession is the sun-drenched cruising speed once you’ve crossed the border.
Christine Davis’s vocals are every bit as husky and street-gritty as ever, like stale smokes and the casual threat of a knife fight. The album’s title track is the best showcase for her vocals, which do some nice double-tracked self-harmonizing throughout. Rather curiously, the title track is actually a cover of the b-side to a 1986 single by the reasonably obscure Swedish band Faith, but it is nevertheless an impossibly catchy tune with a fist-pumping gang-shout chorus. In what serves as a crucial indicator for Christian Mistress’s loving attention to detail and fidelity to the style of metal that clearly moves them, apart from the slightly uncharacteristic Sabbath swing riff that opens the tune, you’d have no problem at all convincing even the most anal-retentive of listeners that “Possession” is anything but an original, which demonstrates that even though Christian Mistress is mining a well-worn style, they’ve got far more at their disposal than the biggest names, the fanciest cars, the cheapest of gimmicks.
So, while the roughs may be smoother, the warmths are richer, the richnesses deeper, the depths boundless. Possession’s second half ratchets up the energy anyway, so go jump in a lake with your whining, yeah? “Black to Gold” has got a midsection that just effortlessly kicks all kinds of ass before slipping back into a rollicking main lick, while “There is Nowhere” is probably the closest to Agony & Opium’s “Omega Stone,” opening with a dense web of overlapping acoustics before Davis ushers in a foot-stamping, chest-thumping, pistol-waving second movement by spitting the words “Well, I had a vision, deep in my head / That we were laughing as we met our death” with a fierce conviction. Still, my nomination for Most Bad-Ass (Baddest-Ass?) Lyric Of The Year comes from the album’s first single “Haunted Hunted,” in which Davis quite matter-of-factly claims “I am death, you are the vulture; / Sinew, flesh, and bone, my altar.” But there’s no bluster, no posture – the guitars lay way back on Storey’s immaculately calm boogie and shuffle beats, and Davis is just telling it like it is. Sinew, flesh, and bone. Five folks, one room, no bullshit: this is heavy metal.
I am not currently wearing a hat, but if Possession doesn’t claw its way toweringly high and mightily close to the top of the heap come year end, I will find a hat, and I will eat that hat. If you are one of those colossally stodgy folks who’d rather whine about retro this or throwback that, I have two things to say to you. Well, three, really. First: fuck you. Second: does it ever bother you, being sad all the time? And third: the question is not now nor should it ever be “Were you there?” but rather “Are you here?” So, friend, be here now.