How much time needs to pass from one occurrence to the next, before the second can be termed ‘highly anticipated’? To me, for something to be ‘highly anticipated,’ it needs to (a) follow something that was good, or at least showed a lot of promise and (b) appear after a certain passage of time that builds the anticipation to a heightened state. If, hypothetically, you were to release two EPs at the beginning of a year, your debut LP in May, follow this with another EP and two compilations, and then drop your sophomore album in December, would that follow-up full-length be ‘highly anticipated’? This is the position we find ourselves in with Portland, Oregon’s Witchbones.
Only in existence since 2018, the one-man black and death metal project has, so far this year alone, dropped three EPs, two compilations and a debut album, May’s We Haunt Ourselves. And now we come to December and Witchbones’ second album, The Seas of Draugen. This is not blackened death as you picture it in your head. Unless, that is, you are familiar with the type of records that Iron Bonehead tends to put out. This is sepulchral, foreboding, cavernous, funereal blackened death. Witchbones toys with haunting atmospherics and mixes tempos between tracks, at times playing at a frenetic death metal canter, at others slowing things down to an almost doom pace. Throughout, the filthy, necrotic feel of the draugen from which the album takes it name pervades. Just as on the debut, We Haunt Ourselves (see “U,” for example – the track titles spell out ‘HAUNTING’), Witchbones’ mainman Vardlokker1 is occasionally willing to drop the churning guitars and pounding drums altogether in favor of slightly unsettling keys, like on “Nebulous Ghost Ship.”
But in the main, across its 26 minutes, The Seas of Draugen is an unrelenting and pleasantly unpleasant listen. Vardlokker’s vocals are for the most part deep, elemental howls of fury and despair, falling somewhere between doom and death, peppered with occasional old school black metal semi-spoken rasps. Pitched at roughly the same level in the mix as the rest of the instrumentation, the effect is to turn the whole into a storm of evil-sounding hate and hostility. The drumming moves from mid-paced threatening to storm-intensity pounding but this is not the album for you if you are looking for all-out BM blast beats or metronomic tech death battery. Witchbones’ riffs are mid-tempo death metal in origin but so wrapped in distortion and feedback, that at times you could almost convince yourself you’re listening to early Emperor.
And there’s my problem with The Seas of Draugen: the sound. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s intentional and that the tempestuous ocean of noise is what Witchbones was aiming at but, for me, it doesn’t quite work. The guitar tone is so distorted that you really lose a lot of the riffs and the mix is, again I suspect intentionally, fairly flat in the sense that everything sounds like it’s on the same level. Across a whole record – even a short one like this – I found this to be wearing. It also made it quite challenging to differentiate between tracks because a lot of it sounds as one, even though there is variation in terms of tempo and atmosphere across the record. While each track has, to a degree, its own mood – ranging from the tortured doom of “The Nun Collector” to the bludgeoning attack of “The Ritual Continues (We Haunt Ourselves)” – they tend to find their ‘groove’ and stick in it. Combining this with the production choices leads to a dense and at times impenetrable wall of sound that makes for a difficult listening experience.
To return to my original musings about the nature of anticipation, I don’t feel I am any closer to an answer. In part, of course, this is because I was blissfully unaware of Witchbones until I picked up this promo, meaning anticipation was necessarily constrained. But I do feel that, perhaps, Witchbones phenomenal (in volume terms) output in 2019 has led to rushing things out, in circumstances where more time honing a record would have paid dividends. There is stuff to like on The Seas of Draugen and I have no doubt that there are people out there who can’t get enough of this but those people aren’t me.