Not much that an old dog (or a young dog with an old dog’s heart) loves more than discovering some forgotten, dusty gem of a record that ends up as sharp and true as Excalibur. In the case of Tucson, Arizona’s Ashbury, the band released an exceedingly rare and treasurable debut in 1983 that was custom-made for settling in amongst an older sibling/parent/uncle or aunt’s heavy rock LPs, a collection that included gold from the likes of Sabbath, Wishbone Ash, Jethro Tull, Lucifer’s Friend, Buffalo and Dust. That debut was duty-bound to eventually be rediscovered and fiended over by the more metal-minded decades later because, like its counterparts, Endless Skies found multiple ways to scratch the heavy metal itch. The cover art alone could have sparked the same sort of curiosity that had some rolling the dice on very early Fates Warning—if there’s anything that tempts metal nerds more than the dangers of dabbling in the dark side, it’s a good goddamned yarn involving a wizard.
But as has already been discussed at great length in these very halls, those fortunate enough to have grown up alongside heavy metal in its heyday sans internet also knew to be cautious, because bands sporadically duped with album cover artwork, and more often than not, the bands doing the duping turned out to be some sort of hoary Southern-fried rock that only matched up with metal because of artwork and a connection to bikers, bars and stickin’ it to the man. There exists an undeniable link to that jammin’ Southern rock element with Ashbury, but a decidedly epic slant and recurrent themes dealing with prophets, wizards, wars, and knights help fuel the metal mind, and brother Randy Davis’ scorching lead guitar, when paired with brother Rob Davis’ somber acoustic complement, sang like a sword plucked from a stone.
Accordingly, that Endless Skies would one day find its way back into heavy rock / metal circulation was inescapable (via notable reissues in 2007 by Rockadrome and in 2016/17/18 by High Roller Records), and the fact that the band subsequently became embraced enough by the metal community to land memorable slots at Keep It True and Frost And Fire was likely just as unpredictable for the Ashbury members themselves. But here we stand with yet another underground band helping to bridge the gap between those who count Sabbath as king for their doominess and those who do strictly for their bluesiness, and they’re on the verge of releasing a brand new record in hopes of reminding fans that they’re still in the business of spinning epic tales with time-warped guitars and the smooth vocal harmonization of founding members/Ashbury linchpins, the brothers Davis.
Where Ashbury continue to thrive the most is during those moments when they allow songs to open up a bit more and folkier passages are introduced that dress up the predominantly slow pace. “Summer Fades Away,” “Celtic Cross” and the stunning little closer “All My Memories” all push a fully mellow angle that’s sweetened with Celtic twists and a wonderfully elegant touch of somberness, but rockers such as “Waited So Long,” “Out of the Blue” and the title track all smooth the edges with folk as well.
Those harmonized Davis vocals are obviously a little older, a little more gravelly and not quite as suited for the same range of notes they hit 35 years ago, but they are every bit as sincere and resolute. The only real blemish on Eye Of The Stygian Witches is the fact that Rob and Randy occasionally allow the choruses to repeat too much, particularly with regard to the longer songs. Still, more often than not, just as you start to think you’ve heard a line too many times, in drifts a scorching lead to remind you about one of the principle reasons we’re all here: to have our faces melted by Randy’s lead guitar. His fretwork throughout this record is nothing short of astonishing, and, fittingly enough, there are more leads on Eye Of The Stygian Witches than a Guitar Center on “Epiphone Les Paul Sale Weekend.”
Ultimately, a record such as this has an even smaller ground zero target audience than is customary, even for Last Rites—these are the sorts of songs a person might inadvertently stumble into on any given Thursday night at a local pub, but by God, you would quickly end all conversation the moment that first lead split the boozy air. It’s legitimately a variety of “golden-ager” rock, though, and proudly so, because a label such as that also gets pinned to greats like Winterhawk’s Revival, Robin Trower’s Bridge Of Sighs, the self-titled compilation by Scotland’s Iron Claw, et al. Fans of all these sorts of releases are the music fiends Ashbury intends to reach, and those are the people who will wisely pick up a copy of Eye Of The Stygian Witches when it drops.