Hellripper
Warlocks Grim & Weathered Hags

It stand to reason that with each new album an artist creates, the goal is to showcase the best, most authentic version of themselves. Make no mistake, that doesn’t mean that we, the listeners, have to like the output; but even in those cases where a new album may fall flat on the ears of a band’s fans, it probably safe to assume the goal wasn’t to release a bad record. Any artist worth their weight will, and should, continue to evolve and forge new paths to express themselves – critical ears, eyes and otherwise be damned. After all, no one makes progress by staying comfortable.

On the project’s third full-length, Hellripper‘s sole mastermind James McBain isn’t just putting his best foot forward – he’s leaping ahead into a whole new stratosphere. Warlocks Grim & Weather Hags is a modern Speed Metal master class.

Since 2014, McBain, has built quite a reputation for himself with his Venom and Sabbat-influenced brand of Blackened Speed Metal, not just for his ability to throw down absolutely blistering riffs seemingly at will, but also for being an artist willing to go the extra mile to nurture a growing fan base (known as the “GOAT KULT”) through the difficulties of a global pandemic; granting fans consistent, interactive access on social media and fully embracing the modern demands of being a successful musician (especially notable considering Hellripper exists in a scene not necessarily known for embracing anything modern).

 

All this is to say, McBain has created a fully-formed Hellripper brand – the sort of which could, very easily, become a breeding ground of endlessly consistent, if not sometimes somewhat uninspired output. Some bands can make this work really well (Midnight, NunSlaughter) but all-too-often, the thrill can peter out and become little more than indiscernible audio content (Arch Enemy, Amon Amarth of late). Even considering myself very much a fan of Hellripper, I sorta assumed that the former was closer to how the project would play out in the long run – especially with 2020’s The Affair of Poisons which, very solid and enjoyable as it was, didn’t exactly push the needle on McBain’s project by any stretch.

A cursory glance is all it takes to notice that things might be a little bit different this time around. Where The Affair of Poisons ran a track list of fairly consistent (and relatively brief) run times, WG&WH is practically a magnum opus, with track lengths regularly exceeding the 5-minute mark, suggesting that McBain is taking more time to flesh these songs out, maybe create a more dynamic listening experience – and it takes no time at all to realize how true that theory is. It’s not often that you hear an album’s first track and say “holy shit this is the best song this band has ever recorded,” and yet “The Nuckelavee” does just that. Beyond the absolutely bonkers-good, incendiary speed metal riffs thrown at your face right out of the gate, McBain is embracing the flip side of his all-out-assault like never before, deploying a heavy dose of Maiden-inspired melody to create a much more balanced attack. The melody he unleashes just before the song’s first brilliant solo is a thing of absolute beauty; a hell-spawned ear worm birthed to infect as many listeners as possible to spread Hellripper‘s unholy agenda.

And when I call McBain’s solos brilliant, there’s not a lick of hyperbole there – his guitar work has always been the X-factor that separated him from other similar acts, and he’s only proving that point further all throughout WG&WH, weaving together a seemingly endless barrage of hand-cramp-inducing blackened speed wizardry. Between the album opener, “The Cursed Carrion Crown” and “Poison Womb (The Curse of the Witch)” alone, you’ve got enough fire power to start blasting away into the earth and make it all the way to Hell’s doorstep itself, with enough ammo left over to start taking some pot shots towards Heaven just for a laugh. But it’s not just the additional melody making a big impact on the album, because McBain is also leaning further into the blackened side of Hellripper‘s sound. Though always a part of their genetic makeup, there are plenty of newfound instances of just straight up Black Metal here – most notable on the midsection of “I, The Deceiver” and particularly through album closer “Mester Stoor Worm,” adding a far more sinister and eerie tone to the mix befitting of the album’s folkloric, demonic leanings.

But the best part of all by far is that, while Hellripper has grown into something to be taken very seriously, McBain hasn’t lost sight of what made the act so popular to begin with – the sadistic fun of it all. There are moments on this record that will absolutely take your breath away, like the brilliant mix of pure Black Metal fury and swaggering Heavy Metal bravado found through the bridge of “Mester Stoor Worm,” or the end of the album’s title track when McBain goes all-in on his Scottish heritage, bringing in bagpipes to beautifully match the guitar melody (this doesn’t need to be an all-the-time thing, but if McBain were to start incorporating bagpipes, tin whistles and bodhrans every once in a while to his music, you’ll get zero complaints from me).

And the Goat Kult’s true nature still perseveres, bringing an evil smile to your face on the incredibly fun “Goat Vomit Nightmare,” which very much sounds in the punkier tradition of Midnight or Gehennah, and “The Hissing Marshes” which is pretty much the Blackened Motorhead worship you’ve come to know and love on Hellripper‘s previous releases. These are far more stright-forward, “get to the point” tracks that pull off the job of maintaining balance on “WG&WH” beautifully, ensuring the album really can be all things for all Kult members new and old. But even the more simplistic overall nature of these tracks show McBain’s improvement as a musician, going the little extra mile to just add even a little more melody and catchiness that just make you want to get in on the fun all the more.

I knew that I was going to enjoy Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags. I did not know that it would blow me away the way that it has. Even if you’re not generally a Speed Metal fan or into it’s more modern resurgence, I plead with you – BEG of you to give this album a chance, because I genuinely think these riffs are so good, the songwriting so solid that they’ll win over even the least interested of metal fans. I genuinely thought the modern Speed Metal movement would have to start losing steam at some point, but between Poland’s Aquilla and their brand of power-forward Speed Metal releasing my favorite album of 2022, and the promise of new music from the likes of Bütcher and others on the heels of what was a pretty damn strong year for the genre, it seems that as long as bands like Hellripper are around, there’s still room for it to not just exist, but completely thrive. At this point, even this early in the year, I can tell you it’s going to be tough knocking this album off the top of my “best of 2023” list. Drink the Goat Kult Kool-Aid and get yourself in on this pronto.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
February 24th, 2023

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