Crystal Viper – Queen Of The Witches (2017)

Due to an unforeseen health scare in 2013, the future of this Polish heavy metal act was in question for quite a while. Marta Gabriel, the band’s founder and frontwoman faced a condition so literally grim that the entire band was forced to stop activity and play it’s last few concerts before going into complete hiatus. Fortunately, the band were able to rise again with their founder and queen witch renewed and ready to rock! It’s no secret that these guys pay their respects at the altar of eighties metal, and they’ve even brought Ross The Boss along as well as Mantas of Venom and Steve Bettney of Saracen! So there’s quite a bit of classic metal love here. The band also covered two classics, Grim Reaper‘s “See You In Hell” and Exciter’s “Long Live The Loud” (which is only available on the vinyl version of the record). For those of you who don’t know about Marta, she designs clothes for bands that I know you’ve heard of, like Sabaton under her clothing brand, Thunderball. She also sessions for Manilla Road, Vader, Sabaton and Majesty as well as Jack Starr’s Burning Star, where she plays with former and current members of acts like the almighty Manowar and the equally almighty Virgin Steele.

When we first begin the album, a soaring vocal presence opens into immense bits of crunchy thrash and groove, where Marta comes in with a fierce vocal edge. She utilizes a mixture of rough and glassy vocals to make for an interesting enough performance. Overly, it’s quite heavy and feels a bit thick in the down tuned bass riffs of recent addition Bŀażej Grygiel. “The Witch Is Back” feels like a wonderfully fiery way to open up the record and gets my head banging almost immediately, which is definitely a good sign. With “I Fear No Evil” we have more of a Priestly vibe, which isn’t a problem for me as it shows a necessary sense of diversity from the pummel factor of the last cut. A strong chorus rounds it out, as some slight Maiden melodies come into decorate here and there. Very nice work from guitarists Marta and Andy Wave on this one, especially during the break section which almost feels a bit alien to the common metal construct and seems almost a little psychedelic and somewhat classy. “When The Sun Goes Down” slows things down to a bit of an anthemic level, not unlike classic Manowar. This cut really stood out to me, as not only does Marta perform very memorably, with a great deal of force and passion (and give it a listen if you don’t believe me) but the entire band more or less shreds through the piece. Not only that, but a heavily notable chorus number pops in to delicately ice this heavy metal cake. Switching gears completely, we have the delicate “Trapped Behind” which is certainly a different kind of style for the band. It’s almost a pop ballad, but with a sober level of serenity quite common in the music of Adelle and Lana Del Rey. Yes, it’s not what you would call metal – but it does stand out and make itself known amongst the heat and fire that comprises most of this album. It’s a cold and icy number that shows a much different side of Crystal Viper and I quite welcomed it. It was tough to listen to the first time, admittedly. Ross The Boss throws his axe into the mix for the chugging “Do Or Die” which in all actuality isn’t my favorite cut on the disc, it’s also quite short. But it makes for a good single and features a rather strong solo section during the break. Many of the pieces so far have offered the same, which is certainly no detriment in my book.

“Burn My Fire Burn” is decent enough, rolling quickly into the chorus as it sifts through more Maiden territory, with an added bit of crunch. There has definitely been a crunchier Maiden feel to this disc, making it sound a bit brainier than you’d expect. It’s nearly proggy Maiden, which as you might expect, sounds a bit odd here on paper. But fortunately, this comes out rather potently on the disc and certainly offers more than some might expect. I think that fans will be pleasantly surprised with the level of craftsmanship that has gone into the very structure of these pieces, outside of the verse/chorus structure. It’s nice to hear a song that jumps quickly to the sing-along, but is even more appreciated when a band decides to tack on a little bit of cranial muscle to the performance. This kind of intelligence reminds of the classical influenced structures of the eighties, which gives us a sound that isn’t personally simplified or dumbed down. The very same formula that made Maiden so rubenesque in the eighties is what Crystal Viper have experimented with here and I’m quite pleased with it. “Flames and Blood” only continues that, which brings us another dose of intellectual adrenaline. Saracen’s Steve Bettney joins on the album’s second ballad, “We Will Make It Last Forever.” This ballad literally comes screaming right out of the eighties, reminding me heavily of Lita Ford. Added to that, comes one of those downright romantic solo bits that only helps to further accentuate the amount of passion embraced here. There is a vocal layering effect at the very end of the cut that I feel is a bit overkill though, they should have used one or the other instead of both. This dual effect seems a bit muddy with Marta’s first vocal track bursting right out the gate and sounding slightly off-key when overlapping the choral refrain of the other. I’m not sure why they decided to keep that, as it doesn’t sound nearly as powerful as it could have and perhaps if Bettney had been the one to duet on the refrain instead of two Marta tracks, it might have been even stronger. The last cut on the disc, “Rise Of The Witch Queen” ends the album with punchy thrasher replete with a heavily-laced chorus number that more or less shows the band’s sense of purpose. It’s not a major standout, but it’s definitely catchy. Since I have the CD version, I also have the bonus cover of Grim Reaper’s “See You In Hell.” As the song already comes with a strong chorus, Marta sort of latched onto this and made for a very respectable performance. It reminds of that period in time where heavy metal was “of the devil” and some bands were more or less embracing the whole “satanic panic” religious scare. It also reminds me a bit of Twisted Sister‘s “Burn In Hell.” In any case, it’s a great way to end the disc and Marta nearly ruptures a vocal chord right near the end of it. That falsetto is nothing short of amazing, and I can’t believe that she pulled it off for as long as she did. I was actually beginning to get a bit worried when I heard the note continue to carry out, because it’s usually that sort of behavior that sends singers to the hospital. But you suffer for your art, and Crystal Viper are a testament to the endurance of not only the human body and Marta overcoming her health crisis; but of heavy metal in general. From my observation here, I can assure you that Queen Of The Witches is no mere drop in the bucket for this band, and they’ve definitely made their mark with it. Be sure you pick it up.

(10 Tracks, 43:00)

8/10

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