Witherfall was one of the biggest surprises of 2017. They came out of left field and blew my doors off with a hyperactive, highly technical take on power-prog rivaling Symphony X and Nevermore. Formed by several White Wizzard ex-pats including guitar titan, Jake Dreyer (Iced Earth), their Nocturnes and Requiems debut was bigger-than-life, over-the-top and spared no wankery or noodling for a rainy day. Luckily, their songwriting was stout enough to stand up to the onslaught of more is MOWWRRR musical showboatery. Just over a year later and they’re back with a new drummer and backing guitarist, and poised to drop their sophomore outing A Prelude to Sorrow. Is this a case of a young, hungry band moving too quickly in an effort to seize the positive momentum their debut created, or do they have the chops to bring the proggy thunder twice in as many years. I admit experiencing trepidation after hearing the advance track “Ode to Despair,” as it didn’t do a lot for me. Since I really loved the debut I worried this talented, promising act might get hurt by an overly rushed release calendar. It’s happened before and it will happen again.
After a short, moody opening interlude, we’re off on a mammoth journey with the 11-minutes of “We Are Nothing,” and what a long, strange trip it is! Imagine Nevermore, Crimson Glory, Symphony X and Carlos Santana force-fed meth then stuffed in a sack and shaken with a gigantic paint mixing machine. This is the overall style the band appears to be going for, with frantic, cascading riffs and face melting solos around every corner as vocalist Joseph Michael (ex-White Wizzard) tries to meet or surpass the guitar histrionics with his own, showing the full range of what a human voice box can do when pushed to the limit. The wonderful thing is, the band’s composing abilities manage to keep all this chaos moving in directions that make for a slick, enjoyable song instead of a cold, meaningless wank-o-thon. One minute they’re ripping along in furious Nevermore mode with thick riffs and Michael’s very Warrel Dane-esque vocals, then they stop on a dime and shift to sweet, melodic Santana-esque Spanish flavored guitar segments. And it all hangs together somehow.
The band shows they can handle more direct numbers on the djently “Communion of the Wicked,” which is linear yet still packed with guitar explosions; and especially on the sullen, 70s rock influenced “Maridian’s Visitation” which reminds me of the depressive ballads November’s Doom excel at. The album winds down with another 11-plus minute monster called “Vintage,” established a sort of book-ending equipoise. While this one uses all the same tricks and tools as “We Are Nothing,” and succeeds in many of the same ways, this time things feel too crammed full of disparate pieces and elements. It’s still a very impressive composition and one I can spin without getting bored, but it does feel like the seams are showing sometimes.
There isn’t an outright bad song here, but neither “Shadows” nor “Ode to Despair” really grab me or stand up to the standards set by Witherfall‘s body of work. There are parts of each song I like and appreciate, I just don’t find them as compelling overall. Another issue is the album’s length, clocking in at a robust 58 minutes. When dealing with such over-the-top, proggy insanity, less may not be more musically, but it sure is when it comes to running time. I feel fatigued before I even have to enter the daunting musical maze that is “Vintage,” and that becomes an issue.
From a performance standpoint, this is like a talent flash bomb grenade thrown into a room full of overworked AMG n00bs. It snaps necks and fries synapses to hear what these guys are capable of. Dreyer is a massive talent and he runs scales like a fiend while also dabbling heavily in various acoustic styles that will impress and amaze. He’s not all just sizzle and pop though, as he plays with a surprising amount of emotion and soul. Joseph Michael is up to the task of staying with Dreyer, having a vast and powerful range. He does lapse int Warrel-isms at times, but he does so many different things on any given song that he’s easily his own man. He’s one of the most gifted frontmen in metal at the moment and he sounds possessed on much of the album. New drummer Steve Bolognese (ex-Into Eternity) is an able replacement for the sadly departed Adam Sagan. He’s all over his kit, counterpointing the guitar insanity and providing a thunderous foundation to the maniacal proceedings. This is an insanely tight collective and they can do anything.
A Prelude to Sorrow isn’t quite the equal of Witherfall‘s debut, nor is it a rushed album going over the cliff. It’s a very good release with a few minor flaws that may have been avoided with more time in the song incubator. This is one of the most talented acts in metal, and I hope they can maintain a stable lineup and keep providing us with albums of furiously creative power-prog lunacy like this. In a sense, Witherfall is filling the vacuum left by Nevermore and the extended absence of Symphony X, and they’re up to that lofty challenge. Check this out and be impressed.