Thrash ‘Til Death #38: Hellwitch (United States) 1984-1994

THRASH ‘TIL DEATH is a 50 week long set of features exploring the legends who crossed over between thrash and death metal between 1983-1993. The focus is primarily on under-served, unknown, and exemplar bands/releases. The selection is comprehensive but the numbering is not indicative of any type of rank or value: The order of band appearance is arbitrarily chosen. E-mail me if you want to suggest any relevant bands!


Every state and any notable thrash ‘scene’ in the union had at least one ‘over the top’ band who’d served as rocket fuel for the development of extreme thrash metal in the greater United States but few bands signaled the way forward as clearly as Gainsville, Florida born Hellwitch. Formed in 1984 and soon to be a fixture of Fort Lauderdale’s eclectic and misanthropic scene, the innovation that Hellwitch brought to the yet undefined death/thrash movement stemmed from vocalist/guitarist Pat Ranieri‘s focus upon complex compositions, an inhuman high speed attack and precision above all else. No doubt there were other important acts in the realm of technical thrash metal (such as Watchtower) and there were equally intense death/thrashers ahead of their time (Insanity, Possessed, Sadus etc.) no other band had it all covered from the start and few have persisted as long with original material. Even if the context of constant touring, several formative line-up shifts, and myriad strokes of bad luck might’ve kept this legendary underground technical death/thrash metal band out of the peripheral vision of all but the most studied old school death metal fandom Hellwitch‘s demo inclusive discography shows an incredible evolution from tuneful and rhythmically adroit thrashers towards increasingly unique and explosively technical death/thrash that is entirely their own. Hey! I’ve done my best to research as much as I can but please feel free to message me (grizzlybutts@hotmail.com) or leave a comment if I’ve left out anything vital or gotten something horribly wrong!


Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Nosferatu [Demo/1984]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! [39:34 into video]

How can you be sure you’re listening to the original 1984 version of the first song Hellwitch ever wrote? First it’ll be ~3:18 minutes long and the acoustic intro will be roughly half speed of the versions you’ll hear basically on every release from the band through 1990. I’ve linked the correct track that was released within ‘Final Approach’ the 2003 compilation that’d generally introduced Hellwitch to a wider audience and portended the return of the band in 2004 after splitting up in 1998. This song notably predates similar work from Insanity (circa 1985) and kind of ties into the more technical guitar work Disciples of Power would do on their early 90’s releases. Of course I’ve just named two of my favorite bands and to be sure Hellwitch is probably the most persistent obsessions I’ve held onto for the last 20+ years. Though this is exceptionally cool as a piece of history it won’t likely be your go-to version of this song as there are about 5-6 solid versions to come. Infamously home-recorded and featuring drums comprised of a seat cushion and a textbook, the point they were getting at is still remarkably clear and this first seed of composition is nonetheless impressive for extreme thrash in 1984. Pictured is the 1992 self-released 7″ version of this recording including a bonus track presumably taken from a tour to promote ‘Syzygial Miscreancy’.


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Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Transgressive Sentience [Demo/1986]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

By 1985 Ranieri would enlist drummer Dave Silverstein and bassist Anthony Adcock to round out the practical line-up of his project. The duo would feature in these most formative early days of Hellwitch until about 1988 where they’d go on to play together in Tampa’s sleaze-crossover (think Mentors) band Gardy-Loo! as well as Gainsville death/thrash townies Precipice in the early 90’s. This is what I’d consider the unintentional birth of technical thrash metal though you could contrast this with Sadus‘ ‘Death to Posers’ demo from the same year; ‘Transgressive Sentience’ is notably more rhythmically advanced and occasionally swaps intense speed for clever use of timing and rhythm. These first four songs can be seen parsed out amongst cover tracks from 1985-1987 that are included in Iron Bonehead‘s 10 LP set ‘Compilation of Death Series – First Possession: Hellwitch’ which closely tracks influences from Slayer, Sodom, Metallica, and Exodus towards heavier shores of Celtic Frost, Sacrifice and Death. From this point it was clear that Ranieri was driven by high standards in terms of his own musicianship and this goes beyond sheer technicality or speed into the dynamic treatment of composition that was never purely performative or bluntly extreme, each song had meaning and was meant to uphold higher standards even as technique would skyrocket to new heights quickly.


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Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Mordirivial Disemanation [Demo/1987]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

The second official demo from Hellwitch saw the trio collaborating more intensely with some shared duties between lyrics, performances, and general songwriting; The results were no less memorable than the first demo, in fact these sessions would largely comprise Side B of ‘Syzygial Miscreancy’ in slightly more extreme form. “Pyrophoric Seizure” is always one of the highlights of their live sets, I think just because it looks like they’re having fun playing through the dizzying speed and the wild riffs. I always liked the vocal effect mid-song, just fuckin’ alien as all hell and it caught me off guard when I first heard it. Every song counted along the way with this band and I don’t feel like they’d abandoned any idea often working through versions leading up to a penultimate vision through persistence, seeing that process on tape has always been inspiring to me. Two of these songs would make it onto a 7″ released by Flight 19 Records that same year but you’ll have no luck finding a stream of it online, just one upload that is played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm that sounds like Mortician.


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Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Rehearsal/Demo ’89 [Demo/1989]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [1:04:33 into video]

At this point it was clear that Ranieri was eager to push harder into the explosive ‘death metal’ movement he’d been a part of as it’d become a phenomenon as the late 80’s approached. Well, consider this rehearsal a document of a bit of a roadblock because there was no chemistry on tape between him, Frank Watkins (Obituary) and Esteban Rincon (ex-Cynic). The reason to check this out is a resonably good cover of Death‘s demo only track “Archangel”, a song you might be familiar with if you’d endured the garbage quality tapes from Schuldiner‘s early days or if you’re as big a fan of Atrocity‘s (Germany) second album ‘Longing For Death’ (aka ‘Todessehnsucht’) which also featured a cover of the song with rewritten lyrics. Hellwitch generally consider this a low point in their early evolution and I wouldn’t say this is an important listen unless you want to hear an early version of “Viral Exogence”, a strong highlight from Side A on ‘Syzygial Miscreancy’. Around this time the band would sign a deal with Wild Rags Records and their full-length debut was on its way.


 

Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Syzygial Miscreancy [Full-length/1990]
Rating [5.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [Wild Rags] [

A new line-up would form in 1989 featuring Joe Schnessel on drums and Tommy Mouser (Vacant Grave) on bass and this time everything would click incredibly well, likely due to an intense rehearsal schedule. There is a lot to unpack here as this is one of my personal favorite metal albums of all time and an important influence upon my taste in death metal, thrash metal and such. Don’t let the primitive and mystic hulk of “Nosferatu” (broken up into “The Ascent”/”Nosferatu” here) define your first impression of this album as it very much intended to introduce the full history of the band up to this point, even going as far as including an insert comic detailing the sci-fi inspired history of the band. By the time “Sentient Transmography” hits your ears you’ll be right where you’d expect to be in Florida circa 1990, shoulder to shoulder with Atheist, Cynic, Morbid Angel, Death and Deicide. In fact with the exception of Atheist I’d say Hellwitch were the most intensely precise and ‘progressive’ of the bunch now that Ranieri had found a fuckin’ good drummer who could cross the threshold unto death metal techniques in full. This is helped along by the Morrisound Studios production which took all of two days to record and mix according to the liner notes and surely there is the sense that Scott Burns had his hands on this thing considering the snare sound and the particular layering of the up front guitar tracks.

Before you praise the sound of this thing for 1990, make sure you’re not referencing any of the post 2003 remasters/reissues of which there are six versions total (Displeased Records, Vic Records, Poizon Records, Eviscerated Records, F.O.A.D. Records, and a self-release.) I’ve personally collected most of these and will almost always tend towards the archival sensibilities of F.O.A.D. Records on any reissue, it also includes all demos/rehearsals covered here so far and is the version I’m basing my thoughts off of. The original Wild Rags Records CD cost around 80.00 USD used online when I was first able to buy it and tends to go for about 120.00 USD on average these days; If you love it that much make sure you can spot the actual original and not a bootleg. Any remastered version of the album is perfectly fine, the only difference is that the original mix has a late 80’s thrash sound that is distinctly of its time, I particularly love that original version. The album sold well, even some unauthorized copies (reportedly), and the band were able to tour the eastern United States now including a second guitarist into their increasingly complex style.

At just under 26 minutes and clocking in around that many riffs per song the sheer density of Hellwitch could only be achieved through matching propulsion. While a band like Merciless appeared to collapse under the pressure of their overzealous pace Hellwitch were notably able to handle this feat with style that was only matched by Atheist at the time of release. It was a step beyond technical thrash metal echoed by groups like Mass Psychosis, Sadus, Ripping Corpse etc. and even with contemporaries stacking up worldwide Hellwitch retained a sound and rhythmic punch that was unmistakably theirs. When the band would reform in 2004 and release an EP soon after Ranieri would do some in depth retrospective interviews that’d be pretty damn explicit about both Wild Rags Records and Lethal Records completely ripping off the band. If you’d ever wondered why this band didn’t make it big, well, it appears they never got paid in earnest and couldn’t afford to sue. An understandably disheartening experience adds up and affects the strength of any line-up.


Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Terraasymmetry [EP/1993]
Rating [4.5/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp [Tracks 8-10]

The momentum was still going strong off of the release of the first album and though it seems they were done with Wild Rags Records at this point in 1991 a deal was struck for an EP with Lethal Records out of Austria. My guess is that Hellwitch had accepted deals from labels that were the best offers they’d gotten at that point and it just so happens that they were ripped off along with the rest of Lethal‘s roster around 1993, never receiving royalties or any profits from ‘Terraasymmetry’. This should all feel very familiar if you’d read my Retro Tuesdays column on Ripped‘s ‘Through My Eyes’, another ’93 Lethal Records release that tanked that band for good. Anyhow, what were Hellwitch up to musically in 1991? Turns out they were moving further into the realm of spastic technical death metal while also refining some of their older songs into this new sound. ‘Terraasymmetry’ brings back one of Ranieri‘s oldest songs “Satan’s Wrath” and updates it into an unexpected stomper that probably struck out as a bit odd compared to the otherwise frantic cyclone of riffs otherwise though the influence from Death‘s ‘Human’ can surely be felt.

Not sure why people still complain about Scott Burns‘ choices today? Here’s an example of a production you can directly compare from the same studio this time with Judd Packer (Ludichrist, Toxik) producing and you’ll notice the fidelity is nearly tripled by his hand with an almost too righteous bass tone in tow. Of course the money drying up after this release was not good for the trio, who were actually working beautifully together on these mostly collaborative songs, and the next year would be a matter of finding the right players moving forward. The takeaway at this point is that if not for being consistently fucked by labels throughout their career, Hellwitch would have thrived and a timely technical death metal album would’ve surfaced around 1995.


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Artist Hellwitch
Title [Type/Year] Anthropophagi [Demo/1994]
Rating [4.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [45:49 into video]

Although it would take another decade beyond this point to re-stabilize ‘Anthropophagi’ ultimately represents the modernization of Hellwitch into the present day incarnation (up to this point) featuring much heavier death metal drumming than anything previous. Intensely detailed guitar work spread across several tracks and a sound that would have likely fared quite well if released alongside records like Monstrosity‘s ‘Millennium’. Otherwise this final demo of the first era of Hellwitch is unique for being recorded as a duo between Ranieri on vocals, guitar and bass with one time drummer Joel Suarez filling in. The results are remarkably high quality considering it was more or less a one man show with a session drummer. The title track “Anthropophagi” is likewise notable for featuring what I’d consider some blackened death metal guitar techniques, the sort of thing we’d largely not see afterwards. The only song that’d make it onto Hellwitch‘s second album from 2009, ‘Omnipotent Convocation’ is the opener “Days of Nemesis” arguably one of the most brutal and forward thinking pieces from the band in the early 90’s.

From this point on the vocals would become more frantic, the attack more brutal, the guitar work more technical, and the post-2003 revived entity would thankfully tour often enough that I’d get a chance to see them live several years back. As we’ve seen with several other bands that’d arrived shortly after Slayer and Metallica become household names in the early 80’s that inspiration and the music made afterwards inspired extreme metal musicians who’ve stuck around for decades and persisted even when they’d been scammed and beaten down by constantly shifting line-ups. I’ll stop here in 1994 but by all means don’t overlook the various reissues and original material from the band since 2003, all of it is just as good. Out of this bunch I’d say the essentials are more or less ‘Syzygial Miscreancy’ and ‘Anthropophagi’, just make sure you’re diligent about trying different versions of the debut as the ‘Final Approach’ compilation version isn’t necessarily the definitive one.


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