I was quite pleasantly surprised when I heard this band's debut single, "Sign of Times" earlier this year, so it's no surprise that this full-length offering of uptempo doom-based metal kicks considerable quantities of arse. And yes, I called it "uptempo doom-based metal". That may sound like a contradiction, given the doom genre's tendency to riff at sloth-like speeds, but it's an apt description in this case, given that Death Penalty start with considerable doom credentials (and more than a bit of the doom vibe), but utilize elements of the style in the context of songs that zip along quite a bit more briskly than most doom.
First, a little background. Much of the band's aforementioned doom credibility comes via guitarist, songwriter and apparent mastermind, Garry "Gaz" Jennings, known for having played a similar role in the revered British doom band Cathedral until that band's recent decision to call it quits. Joining him are three relatively unknown (but rock solid) Belgian musicians: drummer Frederik Cosemans, bassist Raf Meukens and, perhaps most notably, vocalist Michelle Nocon. Meukens has played in several bands, including Gorath and Torturerama, while Nocon and Cosemans played together in the Belgian doom act Serpentcult.
Not being familiar with them, I went online and checked out some Serpentcult. And while their work was acceptable from a doom fan's perspective, I feel that Nocon in particular shows on this album that she is capable of far more than her former band's work might have led one to believe. Throughout this self-titled debut album, she completely and utterly owns her role, wailing forcefully or creating mood and atmosphere with equal confidence- and often in the same song. (See "She Is A Witch" for a great example of this vocal mastery.) Her voice is clear, clean and melodic, but never lacking the necessary projection and edge.
Jennings is also an absolute joy to hear on this album, cranking out some of the best riffs and solos I have ever heard from him. Many of the riffs he turns in here are mid to upper tempo groovers, and thus jump out of the speakers with more urgency and immediate intensity, versus the slower, more brooding doom riffs his former band was known for (although there's a short, creepy mood piece called "The One That Dwells," which reminds me of another female-fronted doom supergroup: Avatarium). There's also more Iron Maiden-like melodicism and subtlety in his guitar parts than was usually present in Cathedral, as heard on storming numbers like "Howling at the Throne of Decadence" and "Eyes of the Heretic." I suppose it's no surprise that a band named for a Witchfinder General album would come up with a heavy, slightly doom-infused take on New Wave of British Heavy Metal riffery, as Jennings and company do splendidly on "Immortal By Your Hand." And listen to those solos! Flashy, intricate, yet tuneful and tasteful, this is clearly the work of a guy who both knows his craft and enjoys the hell out of it.
A band can't do it all in a single album, but this is a superb start! Really, if a fiery, uptempo (there's that word again!) modern take on both Black Sabbath-influenced doom and classic metal in general, complete with masterful guitar work and fronted by a fiery female vocalist sounds like your cup of tea, there's very little not to like here. My hesitation in rating this album higher is only due to my hope and suspicion that this smoking new ensemble may release something even better in the not-too-distant future. Highly recommended!
About this Writer: Vinaya Saksena // Vinaya is either a writer who dabbles in guitar playing, or a guitar player who dabbles in writing. A Maximum Metal staffer since 2004, he has also served as a reporter for several newspapers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Although his obsession with music is such that it does not allow time for much else by way of hobbies, he also enjoys traveling, trivia, photography, British comedy and the occasional A-Team re-run.
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