When Cathedral went belly up last year, riff-meister extraordinaire Gaz Jennings was left with some time on his nimble hands. Like any good doom maven he used this time to recruit a new band and launch Death Penalty, which he lovingly named after the debut by classic doomsters Witchfinder General. He then recruited Michelle Nocon and Raf Meukens from Bathsheba and released this self-titled debut, which is a gnarly amalgam of doom, vest and NWoBHM. I suppose you can call it this year’s Avatarium: a rollicking, infectious slab o’ doom with a renowned genre leader teaming with a gifted female vocalist. It’s also one of the better albums of the year and one that didn’t get nearly enough attention. Let’s remedy that by showering it with much needed praise, shall we?
As soon as “Howling at the Throne of Decadence” kicks in, you see what a dynamic and potent combination Gaz and Michelle are. The Gazster delivers one meaty, crunchy riff after another as Michelle croons, belts and roars with punkish power and more confidence than many of her male counterparts. It’s a simple, linear song, and much quicker than standard doom, coming off like a tasty mish-mash of Candlemass and Iron Maiden with a wee bit of Motorhead bringing up the rear (not like that). It’s quite the table setter and whets the appetite for more.
And your appetite will be sated, as this is a very consistent platter, delivering one ripper after another. Be it the pure NWoBHM fury of “Eyes of a Heretic” (which borrows from long defunct Warlord and mixes it with Castle); or the slower, gritty grind of “Golden Tides,” the band shows its worth with splendid song craft.
The winning moments are many, with the quasi-Cathedral crunch of “She is a Witch” being a highpoint as it channels the best of Castle and Jex Thoth. Michelle effortlessly shifts between seductive and haunting vocal styles as Gaz puts on a doom riff seminar complete with a free lunch. “Immortal By Your Hand” mixes a guitar style reminiscent of goth overlords Fields of Nephilim with the hard rock swagger of AC/DC and damn if it doesn’t smoke my venison. Also quite striking is the delicate balance between melody and rebellious raucousness throughout “Written By the Insane.”
Though the songs are all direct and accessible, Gaz dabbles in many styles and infuses his playing with scads of classic metal charm and occasionally some psychedelic funk, which will make Cathedral fans feel warm and lava lampy inside. The riffery is first-rate and full of sweet little details and hooks, made all the more impactful by Michelle’s powerhouse delivery. She shows herself to be a very talented and versatile singer, sometimes a dead ringer for Castle‘s Elizabeth Blackwell, and other times channeling Doro and even Tam Simpson of the once awesome Sacrilege. She’s quite the find and I’m all sorts of impressed by what she delivers here.
All that lovely fret-board noodling and crooning comes to nothing if the songs aren’t righteous, and luckily for us, the entirety of Death Penalty is a refreshingly enthusiastic doom revival show. No song goes astray and this is easily one of the best doom/vest/classic metal offerings of the year.
As you prepare for holiday cheer, eggnog and annoying familial quirks, do yourself a solid and find time to hear this thing. I guarantee you’ll be impressed and thank me for it in the new year (preferably with beer, cash or collectable pogs). Toodles!
Tracks to Check: “Howling at the Throne of Decadence,” “She is a Witch” and “Written By the Insane”