Article By: Kira Schlechter, Staff Writer ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway, Owner/Chief Editor
When you’re a high-quality unit at your core, a change in frontwomen is challenging, but it can ultimately be done with little disruption. The Swiss traditional metal band BURNING WITCHES has weathered the storm of losing original singer Seraina Telli (now fronting Dead Venus) and finding another (Dutch belter Laura Guldemond) by turning on a dime to release the follow-up to 2018’s brilliant ‘Hexenhammer‘ with an album that’s just as potent, if differently so.
Laura takes the reins of ‘Dance With the Devil‘ in an almost frighteningly seamless manner. Her range, from shriek to growl to raspy croon, is impressive, and her sonic quality is nearly identical to Seraina’s, which makes the transition even easier to take. She’s no copycat, but she gets the Witches’ vibe instinctually.
“The Incantation” as is their wont, is an instrumental lead-in, atmospheric and eerie with whispered vocals. “Lucid Nightmare” is rich and meaty and so well played, very “Enter Sandman” in its sentiment of describing the real or imagined monsters in your head. They have really upped their game soundwise in terms of mixing – everything is layered and even and full of bottom throughout.
Laura’s voice is equally elastic in upper and lower registers, as the title track demonstrates. The dual guitars of Romana Kalkuhl and Sonia Nusselder riff, mesh, and solo with completely distinct personalities. The lyrics reference “Walpurgi’s Night,” which, if you poke around, is nicely ironic – St. Walpurga being the German saint who battled witchcraft – and they urge in the chorus, “Come join the witches running wild.” They also mention Yggdrasil, the mythical tree of Norse mythology, and Brocken’s Peak, the highest mountain in northern Germany, in this tempting tale.
The first single, “Wings Of Steel,” roars in the very Priest-like manner they so favor. The chorus is a delight, as are Laura’s ripping screams, her full-throated caress in the bridge, and her punctuating grunt at the close.
“Six Feet Underground” has Laura coasting effortlessly up her range in the verses and delivering a churning earworm of a chorus. The solos here are bleak and sparse to match the theme of madness, playing separately and joining together with ease. While the tracks are dense and detailed, they still remain succinct and lack self-indulgence.
“Black Magic,” a ballad a la “Don’t Cry My Tears,” shows Laura’s haunting and honey-rich side as she sidles the verses into the choruses with little demarcation, keeping the mood intact. She powers up in verse two, never fear, and an ensuing wah guitar solo is emotional but not overwrought. Her descant singing in the last chorus shows her mastery of another BURNING WITCHES trademark and a dainty, wistful ending wraps things up.
“Sea of Lies,” possibly deriding the lure of religion, has a supremely satisfying crunch. Laura does a most convincing death growl here, but her midrange is really her best, deep and resonant, even though her Halford cries and snarls are superior. The gorgeously melodic bridge is punched along by Lala Frischknecht’s booming tom work.
The band becomes even more skilled with each album in crafting the nearly perfect metal song, as with “The Sisters of Fate,” the certainty of destiny personified by the Fates of Greek myth or the Norns of Norse. That dual solo is sheer chilling magic.
“Necronomicon,” named for Lovecraft’s fictional Book of the Dead, has a swirling, sinisterly echoing chorus and a hitching staccato groove that’s irresistible. They quote from the book with the line, “that is not dead which can eternal lie,” and it seems the song refers to its overall themes as well, of how man will be overtaken by nature (“Man has never been the oldest/ And won’t be the last of Earth’s masters/ They bend the forests, crush the cities/ Gaia holds their consciousness“).
“The Final Fight,” with its spirited, brightly blazing chorus, is the tale of a reincarnated warrior’s last battle, another Priest thematic touchpoint.
01. The Incantation
02. Lucid Nightmare
03. Dance With The Devil
04. Wings Of Steel
05. Six Feet Underground
06. Black Magic
07. Sea Of Lies
08. The Sisters Of Fate
10. The Final Fight
11. Three-Fold Return
12. Battle Hymn
The story depicted in “Three Fold Return,” though, is reminiscent of the title track of ‘Hexenhammer‘ in many ways – an accused witch (in reality a wise woman, a healer who “brought millions reason to live“), being brought to her death. Its groove echoes those final steps, and the chorus is moving and powerful and filled with the inevitability of her revenge. The title is the Wiccan belief that whatever energy a person puts out, good or bad, it will be returned three times, and it also refers to the “corners of the earth,” or earth, fire, air, and water.
Lastly, the dirgelike “Battle Hymn” continues the BURNING WITCHES’ tradition of closing each album with a cover (like Dio’s “Holy Diver” on ‘Hexenhammer‘ and Priest’s “Jawbreaker” on their debut). This not only is of course a Manowar cover, but it also features Ross the Boss of that band and Mike LePond of Symphony X. Jay’s bass and the excellent acoustic guitars add lightness to the slamming of the power chords and Lala’s drumming is inspired – she might be their secret weapon. This is a gloriously stirring call to battle that Laura sings like a right shieldmaiden. The third verse is tender and regretful, but she wails out the final one, and the ending is drawn out to a blazing, ferocious finish.
So there’s not as much of a feminist bent on ‘Dance With the Devil‘ as there was on ‘Hexenhammer,’ and less wry humor – both of which I missed a little – but the more straight-ahead metal themes and imagery of this album don’t lessen the fact that this is one of the most exciting young bands out there. You’ll see me mention this one again at year’s end.