You can’t kill rock ’n’ roll, although many have tried. Heavy music will live forever: not because of big names making big bucks, but thanks to the bands that live, breathe and shit this stuff. Bands that live for The Riff. Bands like the mighty Witchskull.
Formed in 2014 and dedicated to crushing skulls and conjuring demons ever since, Witchskull are Australia’s kings of non-conformist stoner metal. Shrugging off all the usual cliches and hackneyed tricks in favour of a box-fresh but bilious blend of post-Sabbath belligerence, NWOBHM nihilism and abrasive, underground grit, they seemed to emerge fully-formed and ready to roll. In 2015, this unshakeable trio of guitarist/vocalist Marcus De Pasquale, bassist Tony McMahon and drummer Joel Green released their debut album, The Vast Electric Dark. Praise and plaudits were plentiful, and Witchskull soon found themselves in an enduring embrace with seminal UK imprint Rise Above Records. Two more albums – 2018’s Coven’s Will, and 2020’s “A Driftwood Cross” – have cemented the band’s reputation as contemporary heavyweights, with an increasingly diverse array of influences – and many, many great riffs – informing their pitch-black tales of nefarious forces. Unfortunately, 2020 was the year of scuppered plans and thwarted campaigns, but rather than bemoan their lot, they used the times of plague and pestilence to their best possible use. A few local shows aside, Witchskull have spent the last couple of years working on their most undeniable metal monolith to date: The Serpent Tide.
|The Serpent Tide|
|Rise Above Records|
“Canberra wasn’t locked down as severely as most other parts of the country, so we continued to gig in several venues, just with a limited capacity,” explains Joel Green. “I guess Covid had a negative effect on us getting overseas The whole industry copped such a beating, that we tried to get over there while the established bands were trying to get back into it, and it left us in no man’s land a bit. We have no complaints though. We could at least gig and write, and most in the industry had it way worse. We rehearsed and wrote a lot for this album, and I think Marcus created some of his best melodies. Tony also bought more riffs to the table, so it feels like a natural progression from the previous albums.
With a newfound sense of urgency and several layers of bonus grit, The Serpent Tide is Witchskull’s fieriest album to date. From the ogre-stomp doom of opener Tyrian Dawn and the grinding psych rock of Obsidian Eyes, to the angular, lurching grooves of Misery’s Horse and the euphoric, old school throb of the closing Rune Of Thorn, it drinks deep from heavy metal’s seminal wellspring. In between, Sun Carver gleefully blurs the lines between traditional doom and psychedelic blues; Bornless Hollow is an invigorating blast of occult funk rock with a grim, sludgy epilogue; The Serving Ritual kicks off with a full-pelt stoner boogie, before veering off on an acid-friend tangent; and the title track showcases Marcus De Pasquale’s tremulous, otherworldly howl, over a loping, tripped out, lava-flow beat. Where the previous three albums were revelatory, The Serpent Tide feels revolutionary.
“We’re really happy with the record, and we’ve never worried about what other people think,” states Joel. “If the three of us like it then it makes the grade, and that’s how we’ve always written, so this feels like a normal progression for us. If anything, we felt some of the songs have a bit of a ‘90s vibe happening, but maybe that’s just us? There are definitely some stylistic differences, but they occurred organically during the writing process, and felt right to us so we just rolled with it.”
It wasn’t broke, so they didn’t fix it. As with all previous albums, The Serpent Tide was recorded in collaboration with producer Jason Fuller. Having captured Witchskull’s thunderous idiosyncrasies so effectively in the past, he was the obvious and only man for the job. The new album serves up an elegantly monstrous assault on the senses: a glowing testament to the ongoing chemistry between Witchskull and their studio guru.
“We’ve done every album with Fuller, and we love working with him,” says Joel. “He totally gets what we do and he enhances the songs in the studio. We‘re pretty old school with our approach to everything. We always play live with no click and just do additional guitars and vocals later. The biggest difference on this record was that we played each song three times before going in for a listen. I think take three was kept for every song of the record, where previously it was most often the first take. This worked better for us because we were more warmed up, and by take three we were closer to the groove we were trying to capture.”
Permanently lurking on the fringes of the occult and otherworldly, Witchskull are lost in familiar darkness on The Serpent Tide. An album of strange stories, cautionary tales and glimpses through the shattered mirror, it demands much more from the willing listener than the average red-eyed collage of riffs, with a red thread of mystery than runs through every fuzzed-out and ferocious note.
“The lyrics are mostly Marcus’ domain, although Tony brings a lot of good concepts regarding themes and art to the table as well,” Joel notes. “Marcus writes all of the lyrics and spends an incredible amount of time on them. He’s a genuinely unique and inciteful lyricist, and it’s interesting when he explains the concepts behind what he writes. They’re often not what you think, but that’s what good lyricists do, I guess – write interesting lyrics and phrase them in a unique manner. I think it’s better leaving the interpretation of themes and lyrics to the individual, so most of the time I don’t even ask him what he means, I just read them like everyone else.”
As the world slowed, stopped and then stuttered into action again, Witchskull simply attended to their business. The Serpent Tide is the sound of three brothers, bonded by a primal need to break necks and blow speakers, and fizzing with inexplicable inspiration. Meanwhile, the band are stoically planning their next move, wherein these monstrous new songs are taken out on the road and performed for the first time. The Serpent Tide will not be stopped. Be ready.
“Obviously we would love to get to either the US or Europe for some shows, so hopefully we’ll get invited over off the back of this new record,” concludes Joel. “We’ll be hitting most of the major cities in Oz and New Zealand, and hopefully we’ll hit some of the smaller towns we haven’t played before, or at least haven’t done for some time. We’ve done four albums in eight years, so now we need to focus more on getting to as many places as possible and gigging as much as we can!”
Dom Lawson, March 2023