Witherfall – A Prelude to Sorrow – Album Review

 

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Artist: Witherfall

Album Title: A Prelude To Sorrow

Label: Century Media Records

Date of Release: 2 November 2018

Take it from me, grief can be an extremely powerful emotion. It ultimately has the ability to both make and break a person but to begin with, the pain is almost indescribable. It consumes, it smothers, it confuses, it eats away at your mind and soul. In my personal experience, it nearly broke me and, if truth be told, if it wasn’t for my family, friends and music, I dread to think where I might be right now.

I therefore have the utmost respect for those that have seemingly dealt with grief in a far better and more constructive way than I have over the past decade. In the case of Witherfall, who lost their friend and drummer, Adam Sagan in 2016 from an aggressive form of blood cancer, they have channelled their grief into music and have emerged in 2018 with their sophomore album, ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’. Of course, surviving members Jake Dreyer (guitars), Joseph Michael (vocals, keyboards) and bassist Anthony Crawford will have suffered the excruciating pain that grief delivers in spades but they have not let it beat them. If anything, as ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ eloquently testifies, the tragedy has only made Witherfall stronger.

Since Sagan’s passing, Dreyer, Michael and Crawford have been joined by guitarist Fili Bibiano and drummer Steve Bolognese, and whilst Sagan will never be truly replaced and forgotten, the quintet that comprises Witherfall in 2018 is a pretty formidable unit.

As the title of the record confirms, ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ is not a happy listen. It is intense, moving and almost exclusively dark and often quite morose in tone. The tag ‘dark melodic metal’ has never been more apt as far as I am concerned. Indeed, leading up to its release, the band were quoted as saying of ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’:

“These songs are raw emotional reflections, composed in the witching hours under the influence of wine and sorrow, while watching and helping our friend fight and ultimately lose his battle with Lymphoma. Nocturnes and Requiems was dedicated to Adam after the fact; A Prelude To Sorrow is written specifically about his and our personal tragedy. Like Nocturnes and Requiems, the songs have been arranged to still have the peaks and valleys that any great record should. With Prelude, these peaks just might be a little steeper and the valleys might be a little deeper, alternating between violence and beauty.”

I make no bones about it, I’m in tears reading this. I can relate so strongly to the sentiment and feelings within this statement and for the briefest of moments, I wasn’t sure that I could listen to this record. But I pulled myself together and sit here now throwing these ineloquent words together, full of bittersweet satisfaction that I made the effort. It isn’t an easy listen but by heavens, it’s a hugely rewarding one. Not only that, but it is also surprisingly cathartic.

Everything that made the debut, ‘Nocturnes And Requiems’ such a success is present and correct on ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ but if anything, the quintet have upped the ante even further. Naturally the personal concept and raw human emotion that runs like a rich vein through the ten tracks provide a certain amount of added sincerity and gravitas to the music. However, in my opinion, the honesty has led to the creation of even stronger compositions this time around. It is as if Witherfall felt compelled to create the strongest album possible by which to honour their fallen friend. If that was the intention, they’ve certainly succeeded.

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It takes a while for the music to fully click; you have to work harder for your reward than you would normally for an album described as ‘melodic metal’. But this works in the album’s favour because the connection I now have with the record is far greater than if it had been a more immediate affair. I have got to the stage now where I like ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ so much that it is right up there with the best albums released during 2018.

As with the debut, Witherfall demonstrate a large indebtedness to the likes of Nevermore and Symphony X but I am pleased to say that there is a much more unique flavour to the music contained within the ten compositions, something that I hope these guys continue to develop over the coming years.

After the haunting intro that shares its name with the album title, we are hit between the eyes with a behemoth of a song in the form of the eleven-minute ‘We Are Nothing’. It starts off with a bruising riff that reminds me of ‘World Demise’-era Obituary before moving into a more hectic and frenetic sequence where the Nevermore similarities loom quite large. The chorus that emerges is a huge sprawling affair that has more hidden hooks than you think, driven home by the dramatic, theatrical vocal delivery of Joseph Michael at his expressive best, hitting high and low notes for fun.

In essence, this track can be split into three distinct parts. After the bruising tumult of the first four minutes, the song changes tack quite markedly, moving into quiet, sobering and atmospheric acoustic guitar-led climes where the melodies are strong, the guitar solos are full of emotion and where Michael shows a more sensitive side to his voice. The final part sees a return to a heavier, groovier landscape with punishing riffs, exuberant drumming, lead guitar flourishes and a reprise of the staggeringly good chorus. And I just adore the way in which the riff is deliberately slowed momentarily in the latter stages – that’s pure class as far as I’m concerned.

Lyrically, the song tackles the realisation of human mortality and the fact that life is precious yet precarious. As with all the lyrics on this painfully honest record, I can relate to the content and it only makes the experience more powerful.

‘Moment of Silence’ follows and maintains the momentum from the previous track. The riffs are heavy and intricately wrought, the rhythms are bold, precise and compelling, whilst Michael continues to delight with his charismatic performance. The pace, which approaches breakneck black metal speeds at times slows for the chorus, another beast that has a vague doom feel to it thanks to the sheer weight of the guitars and bass that together shake the foundations of the Earth. And once again, Jake Dreyer demonstrates with some brilliant lead breaks just how talented and virtuosic he is with a guitar in hand.

An acoustic guitar brings ‘Communion of the Wicked’ to life in a poignant manner. Michael joins an understated rhythm section and gentle synths to sing quietly, in almost whispered fashion. But, in the blink of an eye, the deeply introspective opening is replaced by a monstrous chorus that sounds almost cheeky in a strange way. The riffs then stomp with relentless groove, reflecting the dark lyrical content which talks frankly about those thoughts and those lies that we mull over late at night when we are alone. This remains the most difficult time for me, as I often find myself overrun by dark thoughts in the dead of night when I should be asleep but can’t bring myself to go to bed. So I share the ‘Communion of the Wicked’ and understand its pull and insidious strength.

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Throughout the album are littered a handful of shorter tracks, the likes of ‘Maridian’s Visitation’ and ‘The Call’ which, for the most part, allow the listener to catch their breath and for the band to indulge in something quieter, more thoughtful and contemplative. In the case of the latter, the entire two minutes explores sinister synth-led soundscapes, an audio representation perhaps of the darkest recesses of the mind.

‘Shadows’ flits between anger and sorrow, clearly demarcated by the punishing riffs and bruising rhythms one moment and then the more measured and keyboard-laced melodies within the chorus. The drama within this piece is incredible, arguably one of the most adventurous compositions of Witherfall’s career without ever sacrificing the heaviness or the emotional aspects of the music.

The classical guitar within ‘Ode To Despair’ is rich and emotive yet wonderfully precise and the juxtaposition between this and the muscular riffs that are introduced at key points is inspired.

The very best moment of ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ is reserved for the penultimate track, ‘Vintage’. It starts off slowly with a simple and evocative melody, gradually building over the course of seven minutes in intensity, pace and emotion. And then, as if the quintet can hold on no longer, the song explodes into a bona fide and deeply touching anthem, a last and final farewell to their deceased friend. Stylistically, it is vaguely reminiscent of an Iced Earth ballad in tone, but this is 100% Witherfall, hearts on their sleeves, giving everything they have to salute Adam Sagan. The melodies are huge, and when coupled with the lyrics, so very poignant.

‘Travel on my friend
Your memory will never die
From nothing you made the world your own
This is not the end
Your music remains alive…’

The intensity grows, the drumming becomes more exuberant, as does the bass whilst the expansive lead solos convey the sound of hearts literally tearing apart in grief. It is like each member of the band is trying to make Sagan hear them and at this point, Joseph unleashes the most spine-tingling screams containing all the agony, all the sadness and all the sorrow that Witherfall collectively feel. I’ll be honest and admit that the tears come unbidden and fall in silent honour of a man that I never knew but feel like I did through this fitting musical epitaph. My late brother too was a drummer, so maybe wherever they are, they have met and are creating rhythms together. I can only hope.

The album then comes to a close via ‘Epilogue’, another quieter but no less sorrowful composition led by acoustic guitars and hushed vocals.

I can honestly say that this record has moved me more than most this year. Circumstances have conspired to ensure that I am emotionally intertwined with Witherfall and it has made the experience all the more raw and powerful. The fact that the sentiment is wrapped up within some of the most memorable and beautiful heavy metal music makes the experience all the more incredible and rewarding. I implore you listen to ‘A Prelude to Sorrow’ so that you too can share in an album that is as moving as it is memorable, as emotional as it is engaging, as intelligent as it is intimate and that is as heavy lyrically as it is musically. In short, it’s a sonic tour-de-force.

The Score of Much Metal: 9.8

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

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