Hellripper – Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags Review

In a crowded market of goat suppliers in the metal scene,1 Scotland’s Hellripper stands above the mob. Their infectious blend of speed/thrash/black metal offered me a lifeline back into a thrash scene that was boring me in the 2010s. 2020’s The Affair of the Poisons was a typically rambunctious affair and very comfortably hit my year-end list. But I have most recently been experiencing the company of Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags which reaches even further north towards Orkney, an archipelago north of the Scottish mainland. Still the solo-work of James McBain, he now weaves folkloric tales of Orkney’s monsters and demons. Is this goat still ripe for a slaughtering?

I’ve previously commented that Hellripper’s music isn’t particularly innovative; certainly its influences are visible on its speedy, blackened sleeve. The same influences permeate Warlocks Grim. There are fragments of Metallica on “I, the Deceiver,” whiffs of Steppenwolf on “Goat Vomit Nightmare” and tastes of Slayer on “The Cursed Carrion Crown.” Venom drapes over it all. However, the songs depart noticeably from The Affair of the Poisons. The bridge from the introduction to the second passage on “The Nuckelavee” orients around a black metal core, while “I, the Deceiver,” notwithstanding some thrashy leads, feels more esoteric and expressive in its use of blackened elements. There’s still plenty of thrashy riffs to be had, especially across the album’s middle, but it’s now blacker with a less upbeat attitude. This is still the Hellripper we know and love, but it isn’t just the 80s but with shrieked vocals anymore.

The 3 longest songs on Warlocks Grim are the 3 longest songs in Hellripper’s discography. Their core sound is one that lends itself well to snappy, immediate tunes. Surprisingly, however, it’s these long tracks that I like the most because they exhibit songwriting growth. The title track (running 7:14) opens with an epic flavor not present elsewhere in their career, leveraging a moody, cool guitar that neatly breaks into an outstanding lead riff. Equally, the lead guitar towards the end harmonizes with a bagpipe; the first atypical instrument featured (granted, not an unusual moment for a Scottish band). It’s a long, rolling tapestry of excellent individual parts wrapped into an engaging whole. Likewise, “Mester Stoor Worm” (running 8:31) is the best example of the album hybridizing its core thrash, speed and black metal elements into something different. It even features an excellent death metal passage with a spidery lead, death growls and punchy rhythm. I’m excited listening to it, as McBain flexes his new but muscular songwriting. It seems that additional length affords him the time to more carefully arrange his songs into proper events, rather than the (high quality) bite-sized approach taken to date.

There is, sadly, a dip in quality through the middle of Warlocks Grim though. “Goat Vomit Nightmare,” “The Hissing Marshes” and “Poison Womb (The Curse of the Witch)” hark back to the Hellripper of olde, being controlled by a speed metal style but overlaid with black metal elements. These 3 are the shortest tracks on the record and strike me as the peace offering to existing fans that may object to change. But they’re consequently the most predictable and unimaginative songs, comparing unfavorably with the excellent quality achieved in this style across prior work. The riffs aren’t quite as good, the rhythms aren’t quite as fun and the melodies aren’t quite as memorable, so it’s hard to not feel a little disappointed. After a strong opening run, demarcating interesting ideas and proper development, the record stumbles. In fact, “Goat Vomit Nightmare” is so unimaginative that it has a chorus melody and lyric which is almost exactly the same as “Blood Orgy of the She-Devils.” I don’t want to overstate the weakness of these songs as they’re good compared with most bands, but don’t meet the standard I now expect.

2023 sees Hellripper still stuffed full of goats, black magic and sacrilege. But more important are the changes. Not everything hits the mark – in fact, it’s the most backward-looking tracks which let the side down – but I admire the choice to strike out from their supercharged-Motörhead comfort zone. Warlocks Grim may not be quite as effortlessly raucous and energetic as prior releases, even if it demonstrates more varied songwriting. But there’s a lot to admire, and I will always credit writers leveling up their skillset. Across its genre-bending and fluidity, it’s the greatest leap from one album to another in their discography and a true development in the Hellripper sound.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Peaceville Records
Websites: www.hellripper.com | hellripper.bandcamp.com | www.facebook.com/hellripper
Releases worldwide: February 17th, 2023

Show 1 footnote

  1. Goatwhore. Goat Molestör. King Goat. Goat.
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