When you spend a lot of time sorting through an overloaded promo bin, sometimes it becomes hard to see the dark forest from the evil trees. You look for the big releases, separate out the worst of the unsolicited junk, and try to find things to appease the overly finicky tastes of our diva fancypants drama club review crew – it’s a real grind. And sometimes as you grind along, you spot an unheralded dark-horse that you just have to hear. That’s how Witherfall came into my life. Formed by ex-members of White Wizzard1, Into Eternity and Kobra and the Lotus, you could call them a supergroup and for once, the name would be accurate. Witherfall play ballsy, heavy, but still neo-classically styled progressive metal with strong Symphony X and Nevermore influences and they have more than enough talent to pull it off. Nocturnes and Requiems was recorded back in 2014 but is only now seeing the light of day, partly as a tribute to drummer Adam Sagan (Into Eternity, Circle II Circle) who unfortunately passed before the album could be completed. Appropriately, the material is dark, moody and emotional and when you hear the quality of the music and the writing, you’ll be stunned that this is a debut by a completely unknown act.
“Portrait” is an impressive introduction to the band, full of heavy, chunky riffs that undulate and surge aggressively with little breathing holes for Yngwie-esque noodle flare ups courtesy of Jake Dreyer (ex-White Wizzard), who was just named the new guitarist for Iced Earth, and you’ll quickly see why. The man can shred like a rampaging beast and though he usually keeps things from becoming a 12-story wank emporium, his skills are quite evident. When Dio’s cousin, singer Joseph Michael (ex-White Wizzard) joins the fray you get a highly versatile vocalist with a powerful voice who recalls the best aspects of Tim Aymar (Pharaoh, Control Denied), Zach Stevens and Ripper Owens2. The song itself is highly memorable and filled with tasteful prog touches but it never feels overly complex in structure, recalling both Helstar and the underrated Communic.
And the band is just getting warmed up as “What Are We Dying For” makes clear over its almost 7-minutes of stunning guitar-work (including some beautiful Spanish-flavored acoustics), powerful vocals and unrelentingly stellar musicianship. Joseph Michael uses a variety of vocal approaches to fit the different moods of the song and the whole thing just smokes with talent and ability. It’s not just a talent show though, as it’s a genuinely well constructed, engaging tune with nods to Symphony X and Savatage.
Though there are only 6 proper songs (with 2 short interludes), they all run between 6-9 minutes so you get a lot of bang for the buck. “End of Time” is a wild song full of exuberant fret-board gymnastics, soaring vocals and stunning drumming. “The Great Awakening” borrows heavily from Zach Stevens-era Savatage for a nicely moody transition track and closer “Nobody Sleeps Here” recalls the mystery and majesty of Crimson Glory as well as the meat and heft of vintage Nevermore.
If there is a knock against Nocturnes it would be the song lengths. While no song is undone by the pacing or length, they could be trimmed. Three of them hit at or over 9-minutes and despite the dazzling musicianship, some may not appreciate the epic serving size. The production is more than adequate, with a thick crunch to the guitars and a nice punch to the drums. The bass can get lost during the busier moments, but overall the mix works well.
It’s impossible to hear any of this without developing a healthy respect for Jake Dreyer. The man is a monster on the fret-board and his neo-classical style is like vintage Yngwie but with a more modern vibe. He deserves to be a bigger name and with the Iced Earth gig, I’m sure he’s on his way. Joseph Michael also impresses with his rich and varied performance. He used many different vocal styles as the complex arrangements unspool and he’s always up to the challenge, adapting and blending his voice adroitly. Adam Sagan delivers a thunderous turn behind the kit and easily keeps up with Dreyer’s lunatic leads. He certainly leaves something worthwhile behind to mark his time here on Earth.
If you love the work of bands like Symphony X, you should hunt this down. Even if you prefer your metal more straight-forward there’s still plenty here to enjoy. I don’t know if Witherfall is a one-off project of if the surviving members plan to forge on, but I hope we hear a lot more from them. Nocturnes and Requiems is something pretty special and I recommend it highly.