Electric Wizard: Worship At ‘Black Masses’

The seventh album from Dorset cult kings (and queen), Electric Wizard’s Black Masses (Rise Above) cements the band as one of the most important and accomplished acts in doom. The burgeoning genre of occult doom—perpetrated by acts like Hour of 13, Cough and, to a lesser extent, The Wounded Kings—owes as much of its origin to Electric Wizard as it does to Christopher Lee in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and on Black Masses, guitarist/vocalist Justin Oborn (usually referred to as “Jus”) and company show why they deserve to be thought of as forebears of the style. Where past Electric Wizard efforts have scattered in different directions, trying to find themselves musically as much as in the lineup—take 2000’s classic Dopethrone and the 2002 follow-up, Let Us Prey, for example—Black Masses builds on and refines the ideas brought forth on 2007’s stellar Witchcult Today, offering a different take on some of the same notions musically and lyrically, while also clearly showing growth, development and an almost scary self-assurance.

I’ve seen remarks around about the production on Black Masses, and indeed I find it is worthy of discussion. Produced, like Witchcult Today, at ToeRag Studios by Oborn and Liam Watson, this 59-minute collection seems initially much less upfront with its fuzz than was the predecessor. Oborn and fellow-guitarist Liz Buckingham’s guitars come off as buried in service of Tas Danazoglou’s overwhelming bass. But I don’t actually think they are. Rather, it seems to me that Oborn and Buckingham are just tuned so low, and so much of the lower frequencies have been brought out in the recording, that the guitars and the bass sound blended together at points. On “Scorpio Curse,” where the riff bounces into higher-register territory (all things relative), they come through just fine. Because of this, I wonder if Electric Wizard aren’t pushing the boundaries of their media. I’d almost like to hear Black Masses on some uncompressed, super hi-resolution digital format, and see if Oborn and Buckingham weren’t clearer. I haven’t experienced the 2LP version of Black Masses, only the CD as is my wont, but I understand where the comments are coming from. I’ve heard that Shaun Rutter’s drums are too far forward, but I don’t think that’s the case either. I think they just cut through the ultra-low-end of the guitars and Danazoglou’s bass.

For what it’s worth, I like the sound of Black Masses. The expectation in doom is that the guitars are going to be out front and that everything else, vocals included, will be in service to the riff. Electric Wizard are a riff-centric band, no question, and one of Oborn’s great gifts is in their crafting, but Black Masses delivers its eight component tracks in experiential fashion. Once I’m sucked into the world of the album, I’m neither thinking of the production nor wanting more of any single instrument, guitar, bass or drums. Instead, I’m marveling at the balance Electric Wizard strike between their cultish atmospherics, their driving rhythms and their superb songwriting. The first half of a killer opening duo, “Black Mass” contains just one of Black Masses’ several distinguished choruses, and puts you right where Oborn, Buckingham, Danazoglou and Rutter want you to be. The sound is huge but not crushing in the modern sense of doom. The guitars don’t crunch; they wash. It’s a lyrical chant you want to join while listening, and Rutter’s propelling ride cymbal only seems to drive the point home. As the song slows to its 30-seconds-of-feedback finish and a sampled female horror scream leads into “Venus in Furs,” you’re more likely than not to already be won over by Black Masses. If it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t.

“Venus in Furs” might be the best performance Oborn has ever given on vocals, and a prime example of Electric Wizard’s songwriting acumen some 17 years into their tenure. As memorable as anything on Witchcult Today, it feels more stripped down lyrically—not necessarily simpler in idea, but decidedly less wordy—and only proves catchier for it. Oborn delivers the title line with perverted sexual longing, proclaiming, “I am the zodiac/I am the stars/You are the sorceress/Venus in furs” and holding out the last word as his voice fades into a riffy abyss. The vocals on Black Masses are presented in a range of effects, and the ghostly wisping in and out of “Venus in Furs” works especially well.

Again, guitar noise ends the song, leading into a sampled bell and the mellotron-infused “The Nightchild.” More proclamations from Oborn—“I am the nightchild/Shadows gather round me”—during an anthemic chorus offset by riff churn and bass overload from Danazoglou and I don’t even care anymore, I just want to quit my job and go wherever Electric Wizard are going to be playing this song next. Between this cut, “Venus in Furs” and the later “Turn Off Your Mind,” Electric Wizard effectively repattern what’s thought of as their typical style.

“The Nightchild” doesn’t do anything outlandish or really different in terms of structure—it’s got eight minutes of its verses, chorus, solo, bridge, ending chant—but it’s also impeccably performed with not a moment out of place. It’s not often you hear dirty doom this cleanly executed.

Shorter and more in line with the opener, “Patterns of Evil” highlights Electric Wizard’s heathen side. Satano-sexual ritual abounds, and a volume kick during a long instrumental/solo break in the middle of the track does much to stand the song out from the surrounding material. Rutter is back at it on his ride—there’s no hi-hat to be had on Black Masses—and the wah is more or less constant. Hitting its halfway point at the end of the song, Black Masses is in full stride. Four incredibly strong, dense tracks have pushed Electric Wizard to new heights of achievement in songwriting, and hey, it’s about time to slow down, stone out and get weird.

“Satyr IX” (say it out loud and compare to “Saturnine” from Witchcult Today) spreads a more lumbering pace across its 9:58 runtime with liberal echoplex noise filtered in and a no-less-active approach from Rutter. The song is a gradual build, but tempered as well, and it only goes so far, showing the kind of restraint only found in the best doom. Electric Wizard are never out of control, even as the echoplex builds to its apex toward the halfway mark and the guitar takes the fore with grooving string pulls and the command from Oborn to, “Rise, rise, legions of hatred.” These repeated lines are key to the success of Black Masses. Simple, clear, evil, they epitomize what Electric Wizard are able to pull of better than any other band on the planet.

These aren’t new words. This isn’t the first time any of us have heard songs about fucking or worshipping the devil, but Electric Wizard perform with such irony-free conviction that it’s impossible not to be taken in by it if you’ve ever even remotely enjoyed their work before. With over a minute and a half left until its conclusion, “Satyr IX” fades to soaring guitar lines and noise that is unpleasant, gross and awesome.

Sage wisdom and sound advice alike come through on the darkly psychedelic “Turn Off Your Mind,” Black Masses’ shortest track at 5:51. A quicker return to “normalcy,” it’s a sleeper kind of song that takes a little longer to appreciate than the more immediately appealing “Black Mass” or “Venus in Furs,” but its quality comes out on repeat listens. It’s the kind of song you find playing on your mental jukebox when you’re not paying attention—infectious, but slowly and increasingly so. Just before 2:30, the music cuts out to spoken sample noise, guitar swirls, moody ambience and, eventually, the resurgence of the music behind.

Electric Wizard aren’t much known for their shifting of structures or experimentation, but these flourishes do well to keep Black Masses from being redundant, and Oborn’s spit-from-the-edge-of-oblivion vocals capture the demented atmosphere of the song as perfectly as does the wah guitar lead that seems to fade in and out. He and Buckingham match perfectly in terms of tone, and though it’s kind of middling, “Turn Off Your Mind” remains some of the strongest songwriting Electric Wizard have ever done. It is a respite from the occult pain of “Patterns of Evil” and “Satyr IX”—though of course it’s a respite short-lived compared to what’s around it.

It has more lyrics than any other song on Black Masses, but “Scorpio Curse” is still based on a very basic concept: “This world is dead/This world is bled.” Oborn paints modernity as a vacuous drug-hazed hellscape at which Lucifer laughs and in which “Even new gods are stillborn.” In effect, this is the last “song” on Black Masses, and its closing sentiment serves as a summary of the point of view Electric Wizard profess on the prior six cuts. Layers of guitar from Oborn and Buckingham, an understated highlight performance from Rutter and rumble enough from Danazoglou to shake my text as I type this review cap off Black Masses in a manner much-deserved.

The only real surprise is that the song doesn’t bleed more directly into closer and Witchcult Today-referential “Crypt of Drugula,” on which a creepy, quiet riff is overwhelmed by fuzzy noise and droning feedback for a punishing 8:49. Storm samples inflict a foreboding that the song bears out, fading at last to a sampled dying heartbeat and then silence. It’s hard to believe it’s over when it is, but Black Masses is nothing if it’s not complete, and its finale makes it all the more so.

There was a reason Black Masses was so anticipated, and the album capitalizes on its every promise. Simply put, it’s one of the best records of the year, and shows there’s plenty of cause for all the bands who seem to be worshiping Electric Wizard these days to be doing so. The more I hear it, the more I want to hear it, and while I wasn’t sure after my first listen if this material would stay with me the same way songs from Witchcult Today did, over the subsequent time, I’ve found myself unable to put the record down or stray too far in terms of listening without wanting to return to it. Obsession seems an appropriate reaction, since Oborn and the rest of the band elicit so much of it throughout, but whatever you want to call it, let there be no question that Electric Wizard are stronger than ever and that the witchcult triumphs yet again.

Electric Wizard’s Black Masses will see a U.S. release Jan. 18, 2011, through Rise Above/Metal Blade. More info at riseaboverecords.com.

The short version is JJ Koczan likes Electric Wizard. jj@theaquarian.com.