Karyn Crisis needs no introduction. Her ability to use her considerable vocal cords, going from charming siren to raging banshee to guttural demon (sometimes within the same breath), is quite legendary. When her band, Crisis, went belly-up in 2006, Karyn took a sabbatical from music to concentrate on her art before meeting up with Davide Tiso, future husband and mastermind behind Italian avant-garde machine Ephel Duath in 2009, joining his band 2011, and releasing one EP (2012’s On Death and Cosmos) and one full-length (2013’s Hemmed by Light, Shaped by Darkness) before Davide would dissolve the band in 2014. Despite Ephel Duath‘s dissolution, Tiso and Crisis would continue to collaborate, this time on a more primal, deeply spiritual project. Rounded out by Immolation‘s Ross Dolan and Mike Hill (Tombs) on backing vocals, and Charlie Schmid (Vaura) on drums, Gospel of the Witches is the sound of rebirth, spiritual determination, and a homage to the witch – a powerful symbol for women the world over. So how does their debut, Salem’s Wounds, do in conveying such a strong, personal idea?
If you are expecting hardcore with crazed banshee screams, go back to Crisis‘s 1997 album The Hallowing. And don’t come here expecting Tiso’s brand of Italian weirdness, either. Instead, Salem’s Wounds is a primal, tribal affair with pinches of gothic and sludge influences sprinkled throughout. Opener “Omphalus” arrives with layers of Tiso’s guitars and bass before Schmid arrives with a simple, driving tribal backdrop. Karyn comes in quietly with “I am no one/I am nothing/I am nowhere,” and maintains that timbre until she’s joined by Dolan for the second half of the song, where she delivers a matured version of her trademark howls and screams, ramping the intensity of the song considerably. The only comparison I can make to this is Laguz – Within the Lake-era Nebelhexë, but considerably darker and heavier. Quite the promising start.
The highlights don’t stop there, thankfully. “The Alchemist” recalls moments from The Hallowing, a slow, plodding number once again highlighted by the vocal trade-off between Dolan and Crisis. Album highlight “Mother” stands out for its lyrical content and delivery, with its chorus of “Mother, I can feel your flesh burning/Mother, I can smell your sacrifice/Mother, I can feel your flesh burning/Mother, the witch is burning” hissed out like a woman recalling the Salem witch trials with vitriolic hatred and contempt. Its companion piece, “Father,” is (to me) the first-person accounts of one of the victims burning, offering her body and spirits to the gods over a heavy tribal beat and sparse electronics.
So is this album the spiritual awakening you’ve been waiting for? It depends on your mileage. Simply put, this is a difficult album to crack at first. The sheer length of the album (over an hour) can be too much, and some ideas don’t work quite as well as others, such as the spoken word parts of “The Secret.” The second half of the album, starting with “Goddess of Light,” isn’t as strong as the first half, with only closer “The Ascent” ramping up the intensity back to necessary levels. Also, this album demands your undivided attention, otherwise you will be lost amid the sea of programmed noises and uncomfortable (in a good way) singing. Thankfully, the production makes listening an otherwise comfortable experience, with Crisis’s vocals not too high above the bass and guitars. It’s just the right mix for this kind of music.
Salem’s Wounds was a difficult album to consume as well as to review. You can tell the album was recorded with conviction and spiritual energy, especially when it’s delivered by someone who’s as intensely spiritual as Crisis is. That said, this album is growing on me more and more with each listen. There’s always something new to find here, and even if parts don’t click well, you can definitely say that this was the work of passionate musicians. I’m hoping to hear more.