November 6, 2018 Burning Witches – Hexenhammer (Album Review)
Out of Switzerland, the ladies of Burning Witches arrived to scorch the Metal scene two short years ago, and now return Friday, November 9, 2018 with their latest album, Hexenhammer.
A quick follow-up to the 2017 self-titled debut LP, and first since joining Nuclear Blast Records earlier this year, it marks the latest update to the winding journey the band has undertaken since descending from the Swiss Alps in 2016. Looking back, their home-grown self-titled demo was released late that first year, followed by a proper full-length in 2017, one produced by the legendary Marcel “Schmier” Schirmer of Teutonic neighbors Destruction. A live sampler in early 2018 was the last independent release from the band before Nuclear Blast announced, on Valentine’s Day 2018, that the band had signed.
For Hexenhammer, Schmier again helms the production, and the cover art, by popular Hungarian Metal Artist Gyula, features an unnamed woman standing in front of a representation of the book, with all five Burning Witches flying free from pages as smoky ghosts, no doubt escaping the cruel fate of the words within. Behind this cover stands a dozen tracks which highlight the diverse, talented lineup of Seraina on vocals, Romana and Sonia on guitars, Jay on bass, and Lala on drums. With styles moving from Power, to Speed, to Progressive, to Death Metal, each context switch is done with an effortless ease on Burning Witches’ follow-up effort.
Titling the record Hexenhammer, the name is from the German term for the Malleus Maleficarum, otherwise known as the Hammer of Witches. Penned in the late fifteenth century by disgraced Catholic cleric Heinrich Kramer, this writing described complex theological reasons and methods for exterminating witches and witchcraft. To paraphrase Seraina, the book describes how to seek out witches and force confessions through torture, before ultimately executing any offenders. Witches were an easy target at the time, but overall, persecution for being “different” is neither a new topic nor an extinguished one, and that sense of repeated history comes through here as well.
Consisting of fourteen tracks in total, “The Witch Circle” serves as a subtle, spectral introduction before the raw power and scathing guitar of “Executed” enters the fray. Both in terms of sound and style, there are loose parallels to be made to Judas Priest and other NWOBHM pioneers, though Burning Witches are quick and careful to put a unique stamp on their influences, and always put forth a sound that is original. An early promotional video for “Executed” was released by the band, followed by a more thorough video for the title track soon thereafter.
Moving on, Seraina opens “Lords of War” with a loud, impressive wail, backed by strong, screeching guitar from Romana and Sonia. Considering the historical neutrality of their home country, the subject matter is an interesting choice for the band. Then, “Don’t Cry My Tears” is a rolling, sanguine ballad, with a soaring guitar solo. Furthermore, traces of Megadeth can be heard within “Maiden of Steel,” particularly during a slow breakdown halfway through; the rhythm guitar helps the vocals set a strong platform for the main guitar solo. Despite that track title, the Iron Maiden influence is instead more obvious during “Open Your Mind,” a song which manages to mix the traditional Iron Maiden gallop with Thrash and an almost Nu Metal opening rhythm progression.
The short interlude of “Dungeon of Infamy” is a short collection sound effects, namely rain, walking boots, moaning prisoners, and mumbled incantations, which serves as a lead-up to the crisp death march of “Dead Ender,” a track which covers all the hallmarks of eighties Heavy Metal, including choral “ohs” and an ominous bell, all the while keeping the fresh, original vibe the band has seemingly perfected. Then comes the title-track, which exudes anger and persistence, with equal parts verse and pre-chorus leading up to the forceful chorus of “Hexenhammer!” simply screamed over top the crushing rhythm progressions; a smattering of dueling solos take focus as the track rumbles to a close. The corresponding video for this track features shots of a monk, presumably Heinrich Kramer, penning the famous tome, mix with the band performing both the song itself and assorted mystical rites.
Other than the ballad of “Don’t Cry My Tears,” the soaring “Possession” could be considered the lightest track on the album, relatively speaking – it is still a heavy slab of Speed and Power Metal, with more dueling solo work and a touch of Death Metal influence. The Death Metal vein continues through “Maneater,” a dark traipse through the last of the band’s style changes. Some of the higher-pitched vocals are a bit out of place here over the stunted rhythm, but the guitar work is impressive enough to smooth any rough patches. This is the last original track on Hexenhammer, so the wailing outro could be taken as the close of the album itself, before the band moves on to its cover of Dio’s “Holy Diver.” Already a regular live number for the band, the classic cut receives proper studio treatment here; the band manages to record a nearly note-for-note replica while also putting their own touches on the track, particularly on vocals.
With two self-released efforts already under their name, Hexenhammer is an impressive next step for the Swiss quartet Burning Witches; it deftly showcases their ability to mix a broad array of Metal genres while still keeping the material fresh and original. The recording and production gives the band a proper professional sound without introducing any polish or cleanup. That is why CrypticRock is pleased to award Hexenhammer 4 out of 5 stars.