HELLRIPPER – Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags (2023)REVIEW

Unreal evil, satanic masses, possession by demons and whatever supernatural diabolism still survives within the superstitious minds of men today have always been esoteric inspiration enough to provide the finishing touch upon Scottish black/speed metal act Hellripper‘s traditional approach to the craft, standing apart from the crowd as a legion of pretty good taste and sharp execution on it. On this impressive third full-length the rugged rural highlands which now surround the artist inspire a step beyond the usual tropes, now calling upon local tales and folk horrors for theme. This approach not only serves to energize the artist’s presentation but dictates a more expressive narrative style which dips out of daemonic speed metal just enough to avoid making the same album thrice. ‘Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags‘ shreds, thrashes, and snarls just as you’d expect it to but there are just enough ingenious moments on this thing to reassure longtime fans and curious passersby that this guy still has places to go, things to do with it.

James McBain is Hellripper and his work has always been about the songs, or, more specifically about thrashing away at riffs while managing a boon upon fairly traditional songcraft by his own hand, seeing where he can take this stylistic focus (and fandom) as a craftsman. He is one of few guitarists today who fundamentally understands speed metal guitar as both a lead guitarist and in terms of rhythm delivered with a certain finesse. This is an intense extra factor separating his work from the usual black/speed metal fare we so often find spiderwebbing tours across the globe, wherein public interest often outweighs the value (or, sincerity) of the content itself. What should be obvious to any true speed metal fan or thrash metal obsessive in sitting with ‘Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags‘ (or any prior release) is that there are no smoke and mirrors, no feigned fire, and always an impressive, charismatic guitar performance driving the ship. At some point beyond their first EP (‘The Manifestation of Evil‘, 2015) it became kinda impossible to even start to talk shit, recognizing that the fellow didn’t just get lucky with a knack for a certain gig and pay studio musicians/producers to make it real but instead he’d built it up, banked those skills and upping the standard as folks continued to notice. The band’s discography hasn’t found ’em fucking up yet.

Black metal at its 80’s infancy and throughout its 90’s infamy always sustained as a music built upon charisma, though earlier on that performative gusto was ideally balanced between the guitarist(s) and the vocalist. Within the general set of standards that McBain demands of his work Hellripper must meet a late 80’s thrash metal standard as guitar music, this is especially evident as we focus in on the full-length progression overall wherein each record pulls a bit more personae in, upped the ante on the leads, while borrowing from the best aspects of the greats (Megadeth, Motörhead, Venom and related spawn) when sorting out the details of his best work. You could argue that ‘Coagulating Darkness‘ (2017) was solid but not unheard of in terms of its riffs in this regard but, it’d been a matter of excitable delivery that sold that record as a debut which felt in line with 80’s guitar music per the standards and not merely the blurry nostalgia of that sound. When I’d reviewed one of their pre-Peaceville follow-up EPs (‘Black Arts & Alchemy‘, 2019) seeking context beyond the first album it still made sense to point a general finger to nearby work from Midnight and the still fresh ‘Merciless Artillery‘ from Whipstriker when the streak of traditional muse continued for their second full-length (‘The Affair of the Poisons‘, 2020) but these now seem like distant, typical stylistic ideals now that I’ve sat with this new album. They’ve gone somewhere a bit more late 80’s/early 90’s with it, a shade more black and a bit more technical in its barrage when called for.

Breathing deep of the influential poetry of Robert Burns in developing a charismatic Romanticist trait of their own Hellripper approach Scottish folklore cresting on the thought that nature itself was the devil’s playground, the church of Satan being the great piles of stone which surround in breathtaking expanse. An odd source when considering the pub-sized freakout rock that speed metal were built from but an indication that ‘Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags‘ leans a bit harder into McBain‘s interest in everything from Dissection to Opeth in developing the differently dynamic ride of this third album, which suits the folk horror aspect of the imagery and lyrics with a more grand scale as they step from tales of plainest demonic intrusions to the terrors men would dream up when living closest to the land, depending upon cooperation from nature for survival. This level of awe is immediately evident as opener “The Nuckelavee” bites in with ~20 seconds of sharp riffing to introduce the album before detailing not only the lore of the ‘corpse rider fused with a corpse-horse rising out of the sea to poison the land’ imagery of the titular subject of the song but communicating a different cut to the thrash metal side of the Hellripper riff caste, leaning in on black metallic arpeggiation for the main verses in dramatic sway while making sure we’ve not lost the plot by the ~2:49 minute mark as this sort of early 90’s Running Wild meets Dave Mustaine-esque leadwork trades off unto the last third of the song.

Some of the best parts of ‘Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags‘ pull from the stomp-paced chunking of early Celtic Frost-era riffing as punctuation for more frantic, thrashing riffcraft in a curious nod to both nascent extreme metal and how speed metal continued to drive black metal (such as Nifelheim) well into the late 90’s. “I, The Deceiver” feels like it avoids splitting the difference of these things so much as its flips a switch between several modes as it burns through ’em as parts of a very traditional speed metal song structure. Bands like Nocturnal Witch and moreso Desaster are more-or-less known for this sort of thing but in Hellripper‘s hands it feels like natural aspect of their craft even if it doesn’t land as 80’s obsessed as previous releases had. By the time we strike into the opus of the record, title track (“Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags“) the momentum built begins to read more black metal than speed/thrash metal on some superficial level though the pre-chorus has a bit of early Running Wild in its wiles, too, and a Dissection-esque vocal cadence to sharpen its striding feature as a lead single. Likely sensing the ratio of experimentation and signature thrashing are leaning off centre the next several pieces ebb towards a more straightforward style, compensating with violently sped riffs, wailing shrieks, and plenty of shred as we head into Side B.

Depicting a cannibalistic clan, committing gruesome crimes in their cave of horrors “The Cursed Carrion Crown” finds a bit of German speed metal diction, “The Hissing Marches” recalls the punkish speed metal style found on ‘The Affair of the Poisons‘, and one of my personal favorite pieces on the record “Poison Womb” is a more clearly influenced by the anthemic nearby speed metal side of NWOBHM. These pieces don’t feel as densely saturated with second wave black metal guitar techniques (’til the closer hits) as those of Side A but they do a fine job of continuing the moody thread established. There are many more details to pick through, such as a few unexpected guest vocalists, but the overall effect of this record is front-loaded with excitement and then fevered push towards the grand finale. It isn’t a flawless victory for Hellripper overall though none of the pieces are rote or lacking in interest, anything more drastically stylized would be too much of a change for traditionalist fandom and anything less bold would feel sheepish otherwise, so, the balance of ambition and sustained personae ends up being effective.

Hellripper didn’t need to do anything quite this different to get a basal level of interest out of me, yet the result does ultimately speak for itself as a step beyond past works. This step outside of the usual black/speed metal feeling helps reinforce the strong argument made for the classic influences of the artist informing a high general standard of work reaching a point of mastery. Theme and lyrics push this one over the edge into something extra-interesting for my taste but, again, I’m showing up for ‘Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags‘ primarily touting the now differently charismatic showcase of the guitar work. A high recommendation.

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