Positing the potential answers to “What’s in a name?” in reference to hard rock’s historical flippancy towards the nom de riff offers answers equally as generic as most folks first four or five tries at effective symbolism of their garage-borne tunes. A name is what it is, if you create with purpose and meaning it should mean something, eh? So, what about the name Witch Hazel appeals to rock and metal bands? A love for folk medicine? Old children’s cartoons? Pharmacognosy is a brilliant pursuit that offers some perspective upon the process of refining modern medicine and I’d say Witch Hazel was June Foray‘s fourth or fifth most memorable voice acting highlight but we’re not quite in freedom rock territory just yet. Without fully entering into a bit here, the bigger picture I’ll suggest is that York, Pennsylvania heavy rock band Witch Hazel had no business sporting such a generic name when they formed for the love of all things heavy and 70’s in the late 2000’s, they’re far too interesting. For their third full-length record, ‘Magick & Mischief’, the quartet have acknowledged one of their greatest strengths by changing their name to SpellBook: Adventurous narrative backed by a deep love for Vietnam War-era escapist boogie rock willing to dip into the darker, harder stuff that hit as the 80’s began to loom.
As much as I’d like to narrate a redemption story where a bar-crashing soul-flailing bunch of stoners triumph via a fresh start the reality is that SpellBook just have a better name and they’d had their shit together way back in 2012. Witch Hazel might’ve shown some burly doom rock roots on their debut (‘Forsaken Remedies‘, 2012), if you hop over to their Bandcamp and check out “Moon People Unite” the vibe is much more ah via ‘The Carnival Bizarre’-era Cathedral at certain points but the vibe and the songwriting always showed some serious love for the hard rockin’ blues and balladry of Black Sabbath‘s original line-up but certainly not fist-deep in the down-tuned stuff the typical doom metal band would latch onto. From the start you’d find folks comparing ’em to Pentagram for that fact, and perhaps only out of convenience. As hard as any reviewer might want to steer clear of direct Sabbath comparisons the distinction here is unique, as SpellBook have always leaned towards ‘Volume 4’ love, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ swing and grooves that you’d also find nearby in the finer works from Budgie or Blue Öyster Cult in the mid-70’s. Hell, if you’ve heard their hand-clapping, spoken word radio drama feeling 28 minute single-song EP ‘Nocturnity‘ (2015) you can’t argue against a bit of early 70’s Uriah Heep in there too. Yet it wasn’t until ‘Otherworldly‘ (2018) that the right line-up was set, the material was worthy of bigger things, and the name change and label digs became inevitable. ‘Magick & Mischief’ is the result of everything lining up like a dream for the band but, they’re way more unique than I’ve let on with all of these cool dad rock references thus far.
Vocalist Nate Tyson is basically a dead ringer for Ozzy circa ’75-’79 where transition from chest-shaking soul to coke’d nose-gnasher was mid eclipse, think ‘Never Say Die’ minus the balladry. This is not only perfectly fitting for the slight stoner rock lean of certain songs but it allows things to curve a bit early 80’s for effect. Think of what Quartz were doing on their debut in terms of energy, some late 70’s Lizzy love via Slough Feg rhythms, and all of it synched with The Obsessed‘s Ozz-forward ‘Concrete Cancer‘ demo tape and you’re pretty much there. Of course the production and the general songwriting dynamic are cleaner than that suggests and the range of ‘Magick & Mischief’ is closer to Black Wizard‘s fantastic ‘Livin’ Oblivion’ from a couple years back but, all things considered SpellBook feel entirely on a boogie capable doom rock roll all the way through Side A. Well, things get pretty weird from there and I think what happens next will separate the superficially dabbling ‘retro’ rock toe-dippers from the seasoned folks who are up for something a bit more ‘out there’. “Motorcade” conjures images of bikesploitation films and a hellbound convoy terrorizing desert road travelers, ‘Amulet/Fare Thee Well’ brings what I’d describe as ‘Technical Ecstasy’ vibes as it reveals its high fantasy curse and the final piece on the record brings us back around to what ultimately makes SpellBook an appropriate name for a band so willing to dive into classic prog rock influenced storytelling — “Dead Detectives” will be a make or break point on the record for folks as the nearly 12 minute song begins with a lounging introduction that is spoke-sung, introducing a detective character and well, someone has been killing all of the gumshoes in town! If you thought they’d shelved the lessons learned via ‘Nocturnity’ and buttoned up these artful moments, nope we’re in full rock opera swing by the time “Dead Detectives” hits the halfway point and man, is it a weird and glorious surprise to fall into. If you can’t hang with theatrical 70’s prog excess, this third of the record might kill it for you.
Before you sign out there is yet Side A to impress and “Wands to the Sky” has an early NWOBHM high fantasy metal stomp and gallop feel enough to keep me hitting repeat on the full first half countless times. This song packs a lot of my own favorite nostalgia into one experience, namely early Maiden guitar work blowing my mind as a kid and then falling in love with Deep Purple‘s ‘The Book of Talesiyn’ as a teenager, it feels like that performative, high-swinging edge is there to bridge the late 60’s all the way to the 80’s and I’m there for it. “Black Shadow” should justify my earlier mention of Quartz, if only for its chorus matching that “Mainline Riders” feeling just enough that I’d felt it, harmonica and organ jamming help to push things beyond a NWOBHM stomp into an inviting bombastic piece. As I’d suggested prior, Side A flows beautifully together, so seamlessly that I’d almost not been able to appreciate the different moods and sentiments expressed in the span of both sides. The power is front-loaded and the creative bones rattle a bit harder on back half yet the full effect of ‘Magick & Mischief’ is a success. If you can handle the conceptual and expressive prog-heavy rock side of the band alongside their penchant for 70’s metal daze there are some unforgettable and purely effective songs to dig into. Again I definitely lean a lot of my own taste onto Side A and my recommendation stems from that remarkably sleek flow between four memorable pieces yet the whole of the record is no less considered and charming enough to have grown on me considerably. A moderately high recommendation.
|TITLE:||Magick & Mischief|
|LABEL(S):||Cruz Del Sur Music|
|RELEASE DATE:||September 25th, 2020|
|BUY & LISTEN:||Bandcamp [All Formats]|
Traditional Doom Metal
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