Comfort food. Whether you’re a cuisine snob who frequents Michelin-star restaurants or an amateur cook trying new recipes for the family, odds are that there are times when you don’t want anything too fancy. Food you can fall back on that hits all the right spots without being too challenging or demanding. Mac and cheese, if you’re like me. The kind of blackened thrash that North Carolina’s All Hell produces is my musical equivalent of comfort food. It’s not mind-bending in its complexity (like, say, Dodecahedron) or emotionally demanding (lookin’ at you, Bell Witch and Ataraxie). But when you’ve had a bad day at the office, or life’s getting you down with its quotidian mundanity, All Hell and their ilk are there to get put a contented smile on your face while those neck muscles flex in appreciation. Their third album, 2017’s The Grave Alchemist, was favorably reviewed by Mark Z., who noted that while there were flaws, it was nevertheless a fun and inspired record. Now they’re back with The Witch’s Grail. Do we have another comforting and nourishing snack here?
For those unfamiliar with their sound, All Hell play an uncomplicated brand of blackened thrash. Although the cover might make you think of atmospheric blackgaze, a lá Alcest’s Kodama, their sound is actually far more thrash-orientated. Think early Skeletonwitch or Aura Noir. The focus is predominantly on the riff rather than blast-beats or tremolo-picking. And this is where the first problem of Witch’s Grail arises. If your album is reliant on riffs, rather than atmosphere, ferocity or instrumental wizardry, to maintain the listener’s attention, then you better bring the damn riffs. And in this department, the album unfortunately falls short. When they get it right, with songs such as “Marble Embrace,” it’s delicious and filling stuff. A restless drum beat propels a memorable melody augmented by thick and compelling guitar work. But too many tracks are like “Tonight We Ride,” which consists of predictable chord progressions with nothing to haul your attention away from that unfortunate ketchup stain on the couch.
The Witch’s Grail also has a major problem with balance, both in the structure of the entire album, and in the individual songs themselves. Take “Black Blood” as an example. For the first 2:45, nothing memorable happens, with standard chords and little in the way of hooks. Then, out of nowhere, lead singer Jacob Curwin screams “Black Flesh!,” a killer riff scorches in, lasts for 30 seconds… then the track abruptly ends. It makes no sense. That riff should’ve been the star of the song; the hero of the dish. Instead, it feels like an afterthought. The album itself shares this feeling of unbalance. I had to wait until the fifth track, “Into the Woods,” before I found anything that really hooked me. Yet the second half is filled with belters like the aforementioned “Marble Embrace” and “The Witch’s Grail.” It also ends strongly with the 8-minute “The Invisible World,” which is both ambitious, interesting and catchy. Why you have to wade through so much mediocrity to get to the good stuff is anyone’s guess.
The Witch’s Grail is pretty densely compressed, but this doesn’t hurt it too much because the instrumentation is clear enough that you don’t get brick wall fatigue. At just over 40 minutes, it also never overstays its welcome The riffs hum and the drums, courtesy of Kurt Henderson, have a lovely pop to them. It’s also refreshing not to be bombarded with extraneous blast beats and unnecessary feedback. While there is nothing too flashy here, All Hell sounds like a band that has been together for four albums: the parts all mesh together seamlessly.
Though it may be uncomplicated, even comfort food requires flavor and balance. While The Witch’s Grail has its tasty moments, there are just too many predictable stretches and curious song-writing choices for it to truly hit the spot. This is further exacerbated by the distinct lack of balance in the album, with all the best songs coming right at the end. This ultimately means that with The Witch’s Grail, you’re getting a whole lotta mac, but not enough cheese. And the cheese you do get needs more salt. For comfort food, that’s really disappointing.