While not quite the please don’t suck case that say, the new Van Halen was, a new Angel Witch album certainly falls under the umbrella of only being welcome if it’s good. Or if it doesn’t change too much. Or if it minimizes any damage to the band’s concentrated but extremely strong legacy. After all, it has been a very long twenty-six years since Kevin Heybourne and crew last dropped a proper album, and a new release with a fresh support band certainly falls under the category of the generally unlooked-for. But hey, it if avoids any nauseating effects we’ll take it right? Right?!
The name Angel Witch is identified mostly with the album Angel Witch, with the latter 80s albums on which Heybourne did not provide primary vocals being unnecessary footnotes. (I am myself guilty of not even hearing Screamin’ n’ Bleedin’ until I did some research for this review.) Thankfully, As Above, So Below not only sounds closer to the self-titled debut than anything else in their catalog, but it’s also one damn solid set of NWOBHM-ish tunes. It can’t replace the long wasted potential of a legendary album, but it’s a fine consolation for the elder fans that have waited ages for its arrival.
The trademarks of the debut are mostly present: chuggy and oft-galloping rhythm guitar, Heybourne’s limited-but-appealing vocals, and some smooooooooth lead work. The production is wonderfully modern-yet-not, with clarity across the board and an appropriately meaty tone, and Andy Prestridge’s drumming would find a welcome place on any album of the ilk. Only the bass work of Kevin Riddles is really missed, as current low end Will Palmer does an admirable job but doesn’t quite have the classic NWOBHM dancing that was heard on the debut.
Opener “Dead Sea Scrolls” sets the tone for what As Above, So Below largely offers: mid-to-slightly-fast-paced jams with loosely verse-chorus-verse structures used as a vehicle for Heybourne’s leads. And make no mistake about it, the leads are firmly in charge. Solos, pre-chorus hooks, dual harmonies as part of an instrumental break—all not only elevate these songs but also link them to the Angel Witch of old. Hell, the upbeat finale to would-be-ballad “The Horla” even harkens back to the similar finale of “Sorcerers,” quite possibly the band’s single greatest moment.
As Above, So Below is strong from beginning to end (the only real misstep being some out-of-key vocals during “Into the Dark”), but the latter half is prime. “Witching Hour” is a galloping frenzy and “Upon This Cord” is a thick and shuffling rocker with a particular focus on impact. “Guillotine” features riffs that sound directly (and gloriously) lifted from the ’78-’82 era, and complex closer “Brainwashed” is the best of the bunch. While nothing here quite achieves the heights of tracks like “Angel Witch,” “Free Man,” or the aforementioned “Sorcerers,” a few come close, and none of them merely pays homage to the past.
Heybourne obviously took this latest revival very seriously, and the results are both evident and deserving of honest praise. This modern incarnation of Angel Witch provided an album in the vein that fans want, free of any “reunion” gimmicky, composed and performed with all of the chops that the original band possessed. As Above, So Below probably won’t win many awards or change anyone’s minds about the rankings of the NWOBHM elite, but it sure as hell ought to put a smile on the faces of the fans for whom it was made.
There’s also the distinct possibility that I just love the Angel Witch that sounds like Angel Witch, and that this sounds like that Angel Witch, meaning the Angel Witch of Angel Witch. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just time for us to stop being so hesitant with comeback albums. Plenty of love lately from Atheist, Van Halen, and now Angel Witch.
Hot licks, folks: Get ‘em.