Before we begin, there is something that needs saying: Marta Gabriel kicks ass. And not because of Crystal Viper‘s newest album, Queen of the Witches. No, she’s ruled since her first note on 2007’s The Curse of Crystal Viper. This may not be news to Viper fans, but someone needed to put it in writing. Whether you hold Crystal Viper in high esteem or not, there’s no denying her powerful voice or her strength to keep the band alive after nearly disbanding in 2013 because of health issues. Still, does this mean I would stack any of Viper‘s records up against the top records of acts like Blind Guardian, Helloween, or Manowar? Probably not, but this foursome continues to release album after album of consistent power metal. And now the Queen is back for more. And she’s brought along her Witches. Will this new record be as good as the band’s debut? Better than Legends? Shit, there’s no way this new release could top Crimen Excepta, could it? Don’t sweat it, you only need to wait eleven words more before you get the answers you’ve been waiting for.
No. But, that’s OK. Queen of the Witches is still right up there with the band’s best records. After slipping a little with 2013’s Possession (in both music and artwork), the band chose to keep it simple with this release. Hit “play” and you’ll find everything from ball-busting anthems reminiscent of Iron Maiden and Helloween, stomping mid-paced grooves reserved for old-school Manowar, and gentle ballads that prove Gabriel’s vocal versatility.
Queen of the Witches is also loaded with high-class legends lending their voices and axes to highlights like “Do or Die,” “Flames and Blood,” and “We Will Make It Last Forever.” Though there are other numbers like the Maiden-esque “Do or Die” (“I Fear No Evil” and “Burn My Fire Burn,” to name a couple), it’s the ridiculous chorus and Ross the Boss solo-work that give it staying power. Even though the song’s chorus is more befitting to a pirate metal outfit, the guitar work alone makes it worthwhile. And, if it wasn’t for “Burn My Fire Burn,” “Do or Die” might have the best leads on the album.
That being said, it’s the riffs of opener “The Witch Is Back” and “Flames and Blood” that keep me coming back the most. The former opens with a throat-shredding scream before the guitars storm the walls, unleashing riff after punishing riff. “Flames and Blood,” on the other hand, is a bit more old-school; focusing on an anthemic chorus and the guitars (with contributions from Venom‘s Mantas). In the end, this song is nothing more than a classic, old-sch00l crowd-pleaser, but it’s too damn fun to say no to.
For me, the most pleasing tracks are the ballads and the cover track. The ballads make my top two picks not because I’m a sappy sumbitch (I am), but because this is a nice side of Gabriel we rarely get to see. Especially when we get to see it twice on one album. Both cuts are piano-driven beauties, but “Trapped Behind” is their quintessential tear-jerker while “We Will Make It Last Forever” is lighter on the sap and heavier on the… well, heavy [You’re a poseur. – Steel Druhm]. It has the emotional builds to make it special, but the duet with Saracen‘s legendary Steve Bettney makes it damn-near perfect.
And then there’s the album’s closer. Depending on if you get a hold of the CD or LP version, you’ll get either a Grim Reaper or Exciter cover. Being that the promo is the CD version, I had the chance to bask in the rays of Grim Reaper‘s “See You In Hell.” I’m sure the band rocked Exciter‘s “Long Live the Loud,” but the Grim Reaper cover makes Queen of the Witches complete. Maybe it’s because of Steve Grimmett’s current health issues, or maybe it’s that you can sense the band’s genuine love for this song that just gets to me. Either way, this is the perfect way to close Queen of the Witches.
Now that it’s all out there, Crystal Viper is not going to convince power-metal haters to right their wrongs. And neither will Queen of the Witches. It’s a stronger release than Possession and it feels great on the ears, but the songwriting is pretty standard stuff. Just the same, I’ve had fun with this record and still think Crystal Viper is an underrated gem.