The Vision Bleak is one of my favourite bands. They mix dark Lovecraftian lyrics with epic gothic metal, basing their music beautiful melodic vocals and a few occasional blackened shrieks, great guitar play varying between melodic mid-tempo riffs and faster parts with some thrash metal tendencies, and a powerful rhythm section. Cinematic symphonics add just the right atmosphere to the appealing music and never feel overwhelming. The band calls itself a horror metal band, and this is a perfectly apt term. Their music creates creepy scenery inspired by elegant classic horror literature instead of modern brutality and gore tendencies. These guys are the gentlemen of the gothic metal genre, and care about an authentic atmosphere without trying to shock you with tons of superficial violence like BlutEngel or Gothminister do. And that’s exactly why their unique approach is so intense. Their first record, The Deathship Has A New Captain, included a fresh wave of unforgettable horror anthems. Their second output, Carpathia – A Dramatic Poem, is not only the most authentic and intense concept record I’ve ever experienced, but my favorite album of all time.
After a mixed third record entitled The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey (that had a rougher tone and threw some atmospheric elements overboard to replace them with harder riffs), the fourth album, Set Sail To Mystery, was a convincing return to old strength and the band’s most diversified album to date. Now, the German duo consisting of Allen B. Konstanz and Ulf Theodor Schwadorf, who have also been active in bands such as the epic neofolk cult band Empyrium, the morbid electronic gothic metal band Ewigheim, the more intellectually appealing project Marienbad, and the blistering black metal band Panzerkreutz among others, are back for the fifth output of their main band. This time, they deliver us a conceptual album about witches, as the title suggests.
Even though the new record isn’t a bad one, I feel rather disappointed by it. It feels too much like The Vision Bleak by numbers. It offers nothing truly innovating or surprising, the single songs are not catchy or intense enough to equal the songs from the first two albums, or even the last release. After the usual instrumental opening “Witching Hour”, the true heavy opener “A Witch Is Born”, has a great narrative vocal performance that introduces dark melodic vocals. At the same time, the track and its guitar riffs feel predictable, and the chorus is too simplistic to convince. This song represents the entire record very well: it has its moments and many trademark sounds, but the final result isn’t as impressive and original as it was eight years ago.
“The Blocksberg Rite” makes things better, and is by far the best song on the record. It includes appeasing, dark, and mysterious flute melodies, atmospheric organ sounds, and a great folk break towards the end of the song. This is the most innovating song on the entire record, and even the spooky vocal performance immediately grabs your attention. Another atmospheric and gripping track inspired by creepy folk elements is the apocalyptic “Pesta Approaches”, the second greatest track on this release. This vivid song varies from calm folk elements over slow to mid-tempo paced verses to blistering passages. The diversity is definitely there, but I’m missing the magical key element that keeps all these influences together and would make this song even better.
The other songs on the album aren’t all that bad, but are simply too predictable. The short and catchy “The Wood Hag” begins instrumentally appealing, but soon becomes repetitive. The chorus is also too simplistic to mess with the classics. The song’s music video, however, is one of the best I have ever seen. It was made by Fursy Teyssier of the spooky shoegaze and post-metal band Les Discrets. Be sure not to miss this if you’re interested in the album. The Type O Negative-influenced lengthy doomer “Cannibal Witch”, the faster and thrash metal inspired banger “Hexenmeister”, the overlong closer “The Valkyrie”, and the bonus track “The Call Of The Banshee” (where too repetitive verse riffs meet an atmospheric and majestic chorus) all have their moments as well as their weaker parts. After all, they simply can’t compete with the band’s glorious past. Even the instrumental bonus tracks of the deluxe edition are completely redundant and worthless for me.
In the end, Witching Hour is a good record with one excellent, one very good, and a couple of solid tracks that happens to interest me a little bit more or a little bit less depending on my mood. The record has a clear guiding line, a strong atmosphere, and some new elements – such as more dominating organ sounds or a few folk elements that I feel should have been used more. On the other hand, I’m missing truly majestic anthems that send shivers down my spine or that are crowned by passionate choruses that haunt me like a nightmare. This is what made the band’s first two albums so special, and the last effort very solid as well. The new record is overall better than The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey, and not the band’s least convincing effort, but I know that they could have done better. Despite this letdown, there is no doubt that any gothic metal fan has to get this release as I don’t know any other record of that genre that would have come close to this output this year. From that point of view, The Vision Bleak are still a high quality band and the kings of their genre. If you don’t know them yet, you are definitely missing out a really intense dark ride.