There are a zillion bands out there trying to sound retro, trying to bring back the vibe of the ’70s and ’80s. Similar to old fellers like myself, they yearn for the days of simple riffs, fist-pumping rhythms, and arena-sized anthems. With the vast number of bands riding this retro wave, it can be tough to stand out from the crowd. You need to have a unique take on the genre, or you need to write great songs that make us oldsters weep with joy. Witchskull are new to the scene, having been born in 2014 way down in Australia, but they’re old and wizened like the Huckster and they’ve got a hard-on for all things Black Sabbath and NWOBHM. Can they stand out from the crowd, or are they destined for the dustbins?
The sound Witchskull go for on The Vast Electric Dark is doomy and gritty, alternating between big, bluesy 70s riffs and galloping 80s numbers. The opening title track is one of the latter, and gets things off to an energetic start, although we quickly realize there’s nothing special going on in the song. That is often the case on this album. Standout tracks are few and far between. “Raise the Dead” begins with a lumbering, fuzzy bass line and is the best-arranged song of the lot, with some simple yet effective guitar work throughout. “Worlds Away” is a classic headbanger, although singer/guitarist Marcus De Pasquale struggles throughout on the mic. “Harvest the Druid,” the longest, most ponderous song, features a riff pulled straight from the Black Sabbath school of rock and is a keeper despite its lack of originality. Beyond those offerings, though, not much sticks in your brain.
There’s not a lot of background on these guys. Drummer Joel Green comes from Armoured Angel, an Aussie thrash act that formed way back in the 80s. The other two musicians (De Pasquale and Tony McMahon, bass) are school pals of Green’s, meaning they’ve all been around for quite a while, which makes this album a bit of a headscratcher. While the songs presented on The Vast Electric Dark have sporadically good moments of doomy proto-metal, and the guys are certainly proficient with their instruments, overall the album comes off as a very amateurish effort, for two main reasons. First, it is clear that De Pasquale has never had a vocal lesson in his life, as he has absolutely no technique and often struggles just to stay in tune. Second, the retro production is so retro I had to double-check the sample rate of these songs and listen to them on a number of sources just to be clear that it sounded like crap and wasn’t just my stereo.
The Vast Electric Dark was actually recorded and self-released back in 2015 and garnered Witchskull enough attention that they landed a record deal and a vinyl-only release. Now their album sees digital and CD release, and one thing is clear: the band did nothing to improve the quality of the recording. Don’t let the DR9 rating fool you: the mix is thick and muddy. Obviously, the band was going for a very live, off the floor recording, but they’ve taken it a bit far with an incredibly sloppy feel. There’s bad retro, lo-fi production and there’s good retro, lo-fi production. This is the former.
Witchskull put in a workmanlike effort on The Vast Electric Dark, but a scarcity of engaging songs combined with too-raw production and sketchy, amateur vocals makes this an album we can safely set aside and relegate to the basement box of discards. There’s some potential within the band, but they really need to sharpen their songwriting and take some vocal lessons if they want to realize it.