‘The Cult Of Vestal Claret’
Cruz Del Sur Music (OUT ON 2 May 2014)
Claw-sharp guitar tones, a bass that bubbles like a boiling cauldron, riffs dripping with poison… it is clear why Vestal Claret describe themselves as “occult metal”. Even the band’s name is a euphemism for virgin’s blood. But this US duo offer much more besides pentagrams and magick. First there’s the unusual vocal delivery of singer Phil Swanson, better known for his work at the helm of the excellent Seamount and Hour Of 13. Tackling such cheery topics as kidnapping and child abuse, Swanson’s larynx creates a distinctive Terry Jones-ish high register that sounds as good here as it ever has, perhaps better.
It’s apparent from the outset that Vestal Claret, who have been around since 2005, love Black Sabbath. And yes, when you hear that a doom/metal band is influenced by Black Sabbath, it is increasingly difficult not to roll your eyes and sigh. After all, some bands seem to think that Sabbath only recorded a couple of albums (usually the first one and the fourth – and maybe that crap one last year) and that nobody will notice if they rip off a few of Mr Iommi’s riffs. However, some bands, like Vestal Claret, genuinely channel the spirit and sound of Sabbath, the original doom metal masters, before twisting the model into a new shape to suit their own malicious musical desires.
‘The Cult Of Vestal Claret’ consists of a number of songs from past split recordings (with Albatross and Ungod) as well as a few previously unreleased songs. One of these is a version of ‘Who Are You?’ from 1973’s stunning Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album. You know that a band’s on your wavelength when they not only choose one of your favourite Sabbath tracks to cover, but also manage to put their own spin on it. Vestal Claret’s recording can hold its head up high against the perfection of the original.
Elsewhere on this album, the band’s second full-length release following 2011’s ‘Bloodbath’, there are other, powerful traces of different Sabbath eras. ‘The Stranger’ could have come straight off the Tony Martini-era ‘Headless Cross’ album, and features a chugging ‘Children Of The Grave’-style riff that will put a massive grin on your pallid, doomed features. Meanwhile, ‘The Demon And The Deceiver’ is a creeping, bass-heavy, semi-acoustic masterwork that recalls early Sabbath at their scariest. Other parts are reminiscent of ‘Seventh Star’ or ‘Paranoid’, while elsewhere there is no hint of homage at all.
The most ambitious song on the album is the sprawling, 16-and-a-half-minute epic ‘Black Priest’, a re-recorded version of the song that appeared on a 2012 split with Albatross. This is the closest that Vestal Claret get to traditional doom metal, and they do it with immense skill and power. You could say that ‘Black Priest’, with its patient composition and tempo changes, sums up what Vestal Claret do. The jangling melancholy of Trouble, the epic stomp of Candlemass, the creative freedom of Sabbath, add a big handful of classic 1980’s metal and off they go, exploring places where no light shines.