Album Title: Curse Of Autumn
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 5 March 2021
This has to be one of my most anticipated releases of 2021, and has been so since news broke of it’s likely release a few months ago. Witherfall impressed and amazed me with ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ in 2018, so it’s hardly a shock to learn that I was desperate to hear their follow-up. That record was one hell of an emotional rollercoaster, as it was the first recording since the death of their drummer and friend Adam Sagan in 2016 from a rare form of cancer. But just as importantly, it was an album chock full of really fantastic heavy metal anthems, doing the memory of their former bandmate real justice. I still get tearful on occasions as I listen to ‘Vintage’, such is its power and raw emotional depth.
It sounds a little harsh and cynical but as much as I was looking forward to hearing new material from Witherfall, I did wonder slightly whether the band would produce something as powerful and emotional with the ghost of Sagan looming slightly less large over their collective shoulders. As I know all too well, grief never goes away or reduces, but you do learn to deal with it in different ways. So how would ‘Curse Of Autumn’ fare, and how would it sound with another two years and more under their belts?
The answer is simply: very well indeed. And, on the evidence presented within ‘Curse Of Autumn’, Witherfall will seemingly always be a band that refuses to shy away from confronting their emotions and lacing their songs with poignancy. On this album, there’s a strong thread of anger and frustration, two intertwining emotions that the band, particularly vocalist/keyboardist Joseph Michael and guitarist Jake Dreyer, have experienced over their careers. They take these feelings that are usually viewed as negative, and channel them into a positive force, pouring out all the angst, aggression and rage into an eleven track, 57 minute thrill ride into some of the best and darkest melodic heavy metal since…well, since ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ if I’m honest.
Firstly, a word to the wise about the production which is massive. Witherfall enlisted the help of Jon Schaffer and, regardless of your personal thoughts about recent events involving the Iced Earth guitarist, he has helped ‘Curse Of Autumn’ to become Witherfall’s best-sounding album to date. He and engineer/mixer Jim Morris, as well as Tom Morris for mastering duties, who both deserve credit. The guitars sound even more authoritative and rich than ever before, but the entire band can be heard thanks to the clarity and separation afforded to each musician. Then there’s the stunning artwork, once again handled by Kristian Wåhlin, the icing on the cake.
The core of the band remains unchanged, with Dreyer and Michael joined by bassist Anthony Crawford. However, live keyboards are performed by Alex Nasla, whilst the drum stool is now home to Marco Minnemann, the behemoth that has recently been included in Prog Magazine’s twelve best drummers of all-time. Well, if you’re forced to replace a dear friend, you may as well replace him with the best. And, as good as Steve Bolognese was on ‘A Prelude…’, Minnemann makes his presence felt throughout this record with his combination of power, precision, and panache.
Indeed, it is hard to argue against the suggestion that all members of Witherfall deliver their ‘A’ game on ‘Curse Of Autumn’, in many cases even pushing their abilities even further than before in the process. You think this to be unnecessary hyperbole? If you do, I urge you to check out the first song proper on the album after the brief intro, ‘The Last Scar’. A furious drum flourish introduces an equally furious thrash-like opening riff, as Witherfall come out of the blocks all guns blazing. Michael sounds like a man possessed as he spits out his diatribes with urgency and unquestionable passion. And then, signalled by a gloriously dirty and heavy open guitar chord, the chorus bursts into life, delivering more disgustingly marvellous guitar notes and effortless-sounding high-pitched vocal melodies. It is one of the catchiest choruses on the entire album, grabbing my interest from the first spin way back when I first heard the record. As you’d expect from Dreyer, there are plenty of lead guitar histrionics and a couple of breath-taking lung busting high notes from Michael towards the end.
Follow-up ‘As I Lie Awake’ is more of a slow-burner but it is no less impressive. It begins in more reserved fashion, but this allows the darkness of the music to resonate, whilst allowing bassist Crawford to take the spotlight, which he grabs with both hands. The song feels slightly less heavy than its predecessor, but only a smidgen, whilst it is blessed with a more expansive power metal-style chorus that hits hard once it works its magic to the fullest.
You might think that the best material is behind us given such a powerful start. But happily, oh so happily, you’d be mistaken. ‘Another Face’ takes up the baton and runs hard and fast into my affections. There’s more of a hint of Nevermore within this dramatic and more theatrical track, a composition that flows between light and shade very gracefully and effortlessly. Again, the guys have plundered the magical box of hooks and melodies because the chorus is another sure-fire winner, complete with a dark, angry edge demonstrable within Michael’s forthright delivery.
‘Tempest’ meanwhile cleverly juxtaposes beautifully delicate acoustic guitars with more extreme metal elements, principally fast picked black metal-like riffing, muscular drumming, and ominous atmospheres accentuated by a polished, charismatic performance from Michael, who is a true showman here, even allowing an occasional growl to escape his lips. At over eight minutes, the song is allowed to ebb and flow creating a more pronounced progressive feel as a result, complete with an extended instrumental section, full of more of that dark, foreboding intent. But in typical Witherfall style, the final minute or so is pure theatre, with a giant bittersweet melodic crescendo led by Dreyer’s solo prowess leading us to the conclusion.
‘The Unyielding Grip Of Each Day’ is a prog-cum-neo-classical instrumental workout that covers a lot of interesting ground in under three minutes, from fast and frenetic, to slower and more measured, allowing the dexterity of the musicians to shine. ‘The Other Side Of Fear’ by contrast is arguably the most abrasive composition on the album, putting to music a tangible sense of frustration and of all-encompassing anxiety. As such, it happens to be the least melodic of all the songs, but far from the least enjoyable thanks to some chunky riffing and commanding rhythms from Minnemann and Crawford, who is something of an unsung hero on this album, littering the entire album as he does with some remarkably dextrous and inventive bass playing, much more than just a rumble in the background.
‘The River’ is a beautiful song, the first half of which is an acoustic-led ballad featuring some of Michael’s more tender and poignant singing. The second half continues on the same sentimental path, albeit with the introduction of more metallic trappings, Michael’s lung-busting vocals, and melodic leads from Dreyer.
The final original composition is a monster in the form of ‘…And They All Blew Away’. At over 15 minutes, this is an epic song in just about every sense of the word. Easily the most progressive, it twists and turns for the entire time, rarely settling, but all the while delivering a masterclass in heavy melodic music, capped by some scintillating performances. Minnemann produces some superb fills and beats, the guitars flit between chunky and muscular riffing, delicate acoustics, and melodious leads. I hear a touch of Dream Theater within this song particularly in the extended instrumental sections, but then I also hear a million other fleeting references as it develops. In keeping with the entire album, the atmosphere is sombre and dark, with some of the most angry and confrontational content being spat forth at times.
This sensational record is then rounded out by an acoustic cover of Boston’s ‘Long Time’ which is actually really good, and that’s coming from someone who’s not always a fan of cover versions. It caps a remarkable performance from a band that just seems to get better and better. In a live setting, I bet these guys slay and I sincerely hope that I get to witness this sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, we have another masterpiece to enjoy, in the form of ‘Curse Of Autumn’ – dark and properly heavy melodic metal rarely sounds this passionate or brilliant.
The Score of Much Metal: 97%
Further reviews from 2021:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: