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Karyn Crisis’ Gospel of the Witches | ‘Salem’s Wounds’

All too often the frontwoman’s role in heavy metal music is not too distantly removed from that of the fantastical string-clad woman decorating Manowar album covers.

When this is not the case, a large part of the remainder simply “play male”: out-macho the growls and grunts, contest the very right to the title of “stronger sex.”

There are exceptions, but rather than listing these, let me instead try to describe how the experience felt when listening to Karyn Crisis’ Gospel of the Witches: frankly, this is the most womanly heavy metal imaginable.

Precisely, it is something no man could have imagined.

The strength manifest here is that of Eve, of Babalon, of Nuit: stretching down and tearing power from the male archetype, but only in order to sublimate and communicate it with a scarlet stained dagger whose sheath is womanhood and whose worthy, but conquerable and necessary adversary, is that very symbol of power, yet reality of most sensitive vulnerability, that is manhood. I am not a woman. Salem’s Wounds is not an easy listen.

Mother / Father

In it, we are dragged face to face with just these archetypes: if the diptych formed by the tracks Mother and Father didn’t tell us this plainly enough, then Goddess of Light should leave no room for doubt.

Indeed, taking on this symbolic observation and drawing it like a lens over the music reveals it, amplifies it, makes it richer by first making it bearable.

This latter description will certainly seem paradoxical, but it reflects my own initial response: both stereotypical and male.

On first listening, certain parts, key parts, were simply too female, too surprisingly unmasculine, they just refused to sit down into any coherent embodiment of the music my preformed “metal” mind could conjure and thereby grasp hold of.

But, prompted by the music itself, I began thinking about such contrasting archetypes and what they are used to represent: two abstracted poles of one continuum, a continuum along which every point has some “being” except for the two extremes.

These exist only as abstractions.

To explore archetypes is to explore the dialectical monism of life itself, to accept and embrace the fact that female and male exist only ever together and within every individual.

Salem’s Wounds weaves a musical theme from the very thread of this continuum, interlacing now towards the male, now towards the female, utterly unafraid to get right up into the face of both liminal archetypes.

That caring, soothing, mother-woman visage, however, is an almost total stranger to heavy metal, and the more metal moves towards it, the more male leaning ears may feel the ground shifting and crumbling beneath them. Throwing them off balance. Testing their sea legs. Making them nauseous.

Immolation’s Men

Karyn Crisis does not use the sounds of metal to explore some stereotyped sphere of femininity: rather, this is a bold exploration of the manmade world of heavy metal envisaged and led by a relentlessly female spirit.

Her vision guides her musicians across its continents: the music we hear them creating is the very sound of their journeying, their tireless marching, running, climbing, leaping, wading across an ever altering terrain.

Against this shifting ground, the constants are the mastery and skill of the journeymen and the brazen sincerity of both their leader’s rallying cries and her tender words of comfort, of encouragement.

So this is the challenge Karyn Crisis has set herself with this debut from her new group Gospel of the Witches, formed with her husband, Ephel Duath mastermind Davide Tiso, Immolation’s Ross Dolan and Bob Vigna, and Charlie Schmid on drums.

The couple themselves have already collaborated on the last two Ephel Duath releases, but these, including the album Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness, suffered, I felt (see previous review), by restricting Karyn’s vocal range, limiting itself to a difficult, unyieldingly harsh approach which was lyrically over-dense and left little or no respite to allow the astounding instrumental backdrop to shine through.

This criticism has been dashed to pieces on Salem’s Wounds: here it is the vocal which leads the diversity, and diversity there is in massive doses.

The first opening sounds of Omphalos evoke Massive Attack at their dirtiest stirring up a Doctor Who-esque theme.

And in this opener, we have a distilled taster of everything the album has to offer, both musically and thematically: drone-like vocals slide slowly into a soft melody before a hellish voice steps out (Ross Dolan providing the male counterpart throughout), bringing the shadow with it and driving the female vocal ascending up into a series of soul-wrenching cries.

Omphalos, first in a host of occult terms the listener should become acquainted with in order to truly take up residence and dwell within this music, comes from the Greek for “navel” and, in terms of tension along a continuum, this first piece places us solidly at the centre: from this point we will be tugged first one way, then the other, over an hour of astonishing musical accomplishment.

Certainly the music bears many of Davide Tiso’s trademark Ephel Duath sounds, but the framework is clearly not his alone and it is absolutely apparent that an enormous artistic merging lies behind this entire creation.

The unmatched talent in painting with sound, the weaving of improbable chord progressions into passages that strike the ear with such immanent necessity they make the discordant nature of the harmonies sound natural and organic: all of this Tiso magic is present, but now, perhaps for the first time ever, it is in service to a vision larger than his own.

The synergistic benefit of this is immediate and profound upon the listener – he has never written or performed better than this.

Ancient Ways

The opening to The Alchemist, to take but one example, could be mistaken for classic Ephel Duath, but only up until the gliding, soothing tones of the vocal melody drift in and we grasp that the guitar was there only as a platform for the voice to step onto and be heard.

The result, here and throughout the album, is that this is in no way an Ephel Duath album under a new moniker: it is an entirely new creation, the clear offspring of its parents but a giant evolutionary leap forward for the species.

By the time Ancient Ways comes around, we should no longer be surprised at the ferocity flowing from the music, but when the dual vocal attacks, enumerating a list of witching rites – “light the fire, sound the bells, move the smoke, salt the shells, coil the light, spread the cards, braid the twine, travel inward” – it becomes clear that this very female exploration of a very masculine aesthetic is capable of revealing terrain that was absolutely hidden before.

The contrasts come thick and fast: constant reminders of the feminine element behind this voyage work to amplify the intensity whenever it plunges headlong into the feral metal territory the male is so accustomed to traversing… so accustomed, in fact, it can often seem in metal that the male is no longer even receptive to novel subtleties.

The same familiar territory explored through this new lens brings out so much that remains absent, and unsuspected, from the vast majority of metal today.

The full experience of this album takes form only once you let it envelope you fully, including, above all, those parts which are the most disorientating to metal norms: that is, the most feminine moments.

Howl At The Moon

Mother, Goddess of Light, Howl At The Moon, Pillars, The Secret – these songs will challenge the archetypal male ear of metal to breaking point.

But those who do break under the challenge, who walk away from it defeated, are missing out on something that is literally sublime: a musical experience whose audacity bends us so far in such opposing directions that there is a genuine sentiment of infinite possibility to be had.

In this, relative to the prevalent precious attitude many “purists” hold heavy metal in, is the echo of Nietzsche when he says, “I do not want to hear anything any more of all the things and questions that do not permit of experiment… for there courage has lost its rights.”

With Salem’s Wounds, Gospel of the Witches place themselves firmly alongside other current acts who explicitly embody such courage in the face of metal’s most juvenile and insecure stereotypes: Irkallian Oracle, as another instance, cast withering but justified aspersions on those too immature to break free of christian morality’s prudish stronghold, still giggling like choir boys at representations of womanhood and manhood, the central, revered objects of worship at the heart of so many of our ancestors’ spiritual understanding of existence.

Metal Starved Of Such Courage

Heavy metal, art, life itself are all starved of this kind of courage today, and it is an absolute joy to feel oneself swept along by it when the opportunity presents itself.

The passion that has gone into this album, including all the artwork and bonus material hand-crafted by Karyn herself, is a warm and seductive appeal to the power of the imagination.

The album is the creation of a proud witch, and witchcraft is what has summoned it into existence. You may giggle at this, just as you may giggle at a symbolic phallus or yoni, but that response is your journey.

There are those of us who wish to experiment, in art and in life, well beyond the grey concrete paths which arrogantly proclaim themselves to be the only ways whose existence is valid.

As hinted at above, such claims result more from cowardice, wrapped up in self-righteousness, than from courage. Light the fire, sound the bells, move the smoke, salt the shells, coil the light, spread the cards, braid the twine, travel inward, stare down your own archetypal preconceptions: get this album.

4.7/5 – Christopher Stevens ::: 11/04/15

  1. Crisis are one of the most underrated bands in the entire underground, and Karyn Crisis is one of the underground’s unsung pioneers.

    The very idea of her hooking up with Immolation should send shivers down the spine. I havent heard the album yet but I’m jolly well going to. Fantastic.

    *away to play Deathshead Extermination*

  2. THIS is an amazing album. Karyn plus others of her choosing have created something surreal and devastating…. the last few Ephel Duath releases were testament to the undercurrent of what was to come on this tho they are not related…. class!

  3. Very interesting read! Will be picking this up, sadly have to agree with the “underrated” comment.

  4. open face surgery Says:

    Heard that tune that’s posted a while ago and that is enough to make sure I never listen to another note.

  5. wobblechops Says:

    yep this fully sucks absolute balls and should be destroyed

  6. Very interesting read and then listened to the song. No thanks. Backs away slowly………………

  7. That aint half bad

  8. Black Shepherd Says:

    I did go to pains to point out that I had a very difficult time getting into this, that this was only possible to do by taking the album as a whole, and that, in the end, it turns out to be an incredibly rich and ceaselessly rewarding listen: there is absolutely nothing perfunctory about any of it. It won’t be for everyone, but those who do manage to get into it will get an awful lot out of it. Wait for the album.

  9. pentagrimes Says:

    That’s some serious writing my man. Fair play.

  10. What the bejayzus is this…Ross and Bob, get back to the day job dudes,…that singer looks like she’s going to seriously damage her vocal chords if she keeps doing that.

  11. nice review !

    I think the album is great. Very emotional and dark.

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