Death on Fire wants you to know that Witch Hunter isn’t your grandpa’s melodeath. If that Playboy-for-Pyramid-Head cover doesn’t convince you, one spin through its prickly hollow will. There will be none of that slickly-produced astronaut cheese metal you babies lap up so greedily, not today. The music of one-man band Tim Kenefic is ugly and coarse, like clawing at a scab that will never heal. Debut Witch Hunter is the first official release in the burgeoning career of a band that’s shared a stage with the likes of War Curse and Extinction A.D. and earned an endorsement from Mitch Harris himself. But can its mangled and acidic visage lather the loins of a tried and true melodeath poser?
Witch Hunter builds an interesting dichotomy, translating ferocious speed into infectiousness via brief, grindcore-shaped cutouts riddled with churning death metal melody, while still handling long form with care on tracks like “Witch Hunter” and “Requiem.” The former is all that Death on Fire can be, allowing the core identity of the record to permeate its ever-accelerating tempo, its snarling riffs, its non-stop drum assault. It evokes more Converge than a standard melo-band, but plays more like a melodic mix of death, thrash, and grindcore. The raw atmosphere is nothing earth-shattering on paper, but in practice it emphasizes the brash, confrontational intent that so clearly inspires the album’s best moments. When every aspect of the music trundles toward that common purpose, it feels like Death on Fire could indeed be the next big thing.
Problem is, everything is rarely pointed in the right direction. Take opener “Your Lies.” Death on Fire knows you’re busy, so every shortcoming on the record is crammed into its three minutes. Like much of Witch Hunter, it’s a compositional nightmare, abandoning its lone riff of note early in favor of meandering through tepid ideas and disparate directions with little to tie everything together. “Your Lies” in particular wastes too much time on an elongated interlude section that neither earns its space nor achieves any greater purpose, save highlighting the interminably awful vocals. At their best, when Kenefic bellows along with the full thrust of the music, they’re at least bearable. Far more often, his mediocre pukes and screams take center stage, irradiating every song they touch. Worse yet are the attempted “cleans” that crop up during choruses, which sound more like the poor fellow ran out of studio time and took the mic with him when he went to pinch one off. “Never See You Again” stoops to the level of bonafide album lowlight thanks entirely to the cringe-inducing lyrics and cries that somehow manage to whine despite a mouthful of gravel.
The shame of it is that if this were grindcore, with special mind paid to the individual components that work so well, Witch Hunter would fare much better. Kenefic is clearly a talented instrumentalist, with elements of his drum and bass work drawing attention away from the pain of the vocals. His guitar chops could use a little spice too; the somber guitar open to “Betrayal” and its blistering chorus riffs balance out a track that is otherwise littered with uninteresting leads. “Betrayal” serves another purpose as well: spotlighting Ryan Newman’s shoddy mix. The problem extends past how central the vocals are, how often they make the drums sound pre-packaged and neutered, how cluttered everything is. It’s so spotty that I can’t listen to the song without hearing programmed drums, despite knowing they’re not, or imagining the ghosts of level-matching issues that flicker away when I pull up a waveform and dB meter.
Being spooked like this completely wrecked the positive vibe I had on my initial listen. There’s something to be said to be for taking a different tact on a genre that has been done to death. As I listen to closer “American Scum,” yet another entrancing mess, I’m caught between all this record could be and all that it is. “American Scum,” “Make the Old Ways New Again,” “Meth Dentistry,” they could all be hits but for their wanting execution. Sadly, that’s the tale of Witch Hunter. Death on Fire shoot high, with gusto, but miss the mark almost entirely.