You’ve all heard it before, but I’ll say it again. It’s easier to write about what you love and what you hate than it is to write about something that falls somewhere in between. I like to believe this principle roughly translates for writing music as well. Artists who don’t feel any attachment to their idea one way or the other are at greater risk for mailing it in, damaging not only their art but also their integrity as artists. Witchthroat Serpent, a stoner doom outfit hailing from Toulouse, France, has an interesting concept. Instead of the run-of-the-mill trips endemic to stoner doom, this trio chose a darker avenue, focusing on ritualistic substances rather than those recreational. I would’ve thought they would take advantage of that underutilized perspective to craft an album with depth and danger. Alas, it seems Witchthroat Serpent squandered that opportunity and left us with an empty, anodyne record in their third effort, Swallow the Venom.
Swallow the Venom begins with an instrumental, a trend that has plagued metal since before I was born. At least this one, named “Feu Sacré,” is creepy enough to hold my attention, with ethereal female cleans over vaguely American Indian percussion. Then the first proper track begins, and it becomes obvious that this is basic stoner doom. Crawling riffs bolstered by hulking basslines and pounding drums? Check. Atmosphere that reeks of smoke and bristles with fuzz? Check. Simplistic song structures and somewhat bloated track lengths? Double-check. Witchthroat Serpent knows well the recipe for their strain of metal, but they do inject a bit of otherworldly darkness in their music not often explored in the genre. It’s a subtle effect—a twisted sound here or a pained rasp there (“Hunt for the Mantebank”)—but it gives the band some much needed identity in an over-saturated field.
Something else that makes Witchthroat Serpent unmistakable for any other band is the vocals of frontman and main guitarist Fredrik Bolzann. He is a dead ringer for a rougher Liam Gallagher, which is not a compliment. Sometimes he manages a solid note, but most of his time is spent in a futile attempt to find the right pitch (“Scorpent Serpion”). Fredrik exacerbates the issue with bizarre phonetic delivery. His drawl makes an arduous task of pinpointing exactly what he’s saying, especially on songs like “Lucifer’s Fire” or “The Might of the Unfail.” My biggest gripe with the vocals, however, is that they don’t gel with the band’s mystical theme. They aren’t ethereal or haunting, and they lack a certain conviction that’s essential for immersion on an album like this.
The vocals do not mark the end of my grievances with Swallow the Venom, as the instrumentation on this record is a snooze-fest. Riffs are a cornerstone of stoner doom, and Witchthroat Serpent penned the blandest, weakest riffs of the year. “The Might of the Unfail” and “Pauper’s Grave” are the worst offenders. Each is chock full of riffs that taste about as flavorful as tap water. There is nothing wrong with their delivery, as Fredrik and Lo Klav (bass) competently play what they wrote. But that’s just it. What they wrote is not up to snuff for a stoner doom album competing with the steamroller riffs from Dopethrone’s latest or the jaunty rollicks expressed by Forming the Void earlier this year. The drums don’t help either, with Niko Lass performing the bare minimum to keep time and doing little else. A lifeless performance such as this makes six-minute cuts feel like eight and four-minute cuts feel like… well… eight. If there is one saving grace for Swallow the Venom, it’s that it sounds quite nice, with each instrument given plenty of room to breathe and no one element overpowering the others.
There’s little else to mention about Swallow the Venom. Witchthroat Serpent had the chance to use their cult theme to create a menacing example of stoner-doom. Through a series of poor decisions ranging from their choice of vocalist, to the riffs they wrote, to the attitude of their performance, what I received is the most uninspired, tasteless platter of 2018. There is nothing here for fans of the genre or for those hoping to expand their horizons. If you are looking for an exceptional stoner doom album of the spiritual persuasion, avoid this entirely and listen to Sunnata’s Zorya instead.