Some of the best moments on British trio Witchsorrow’s second album, God Curse Us, come when the band is lurking. As on the quiet stretches of “Megiddo,” the Saint Vitus-style string-benders from guitarist Nick “Necroskull” Ruskell (also vocals) have an appeal of their own, but that’s only bolstered by the creepy ambience and the prevailing cultish mood the three-piece creates on the album, which is released by Rise Above (in partnership with Metal Blade in the US). That mood could derive in part from Electric Wizard, as much doom seems to these days, but there’s an underpinning of early Cathedral-style traditionalism that makes God Curse Us (as opposed to blessing us, as we learn in the chorus of the title-track) a less stylized and more straightforward outing. That works to the advantage of the songs, since although they vary in pace enough that the nine-minute “Masters of Nothing” feels downright antithetical to the upbeat “Breaking the Lore” later in the album the mood that prevails is one of gray defeat. Together with bassist Emily Witch and David Wilbraham (who here goes by the clever “Wilbrahammer”), Ruskell crafts a doom that is obviously aware of its roots – he is a writer for Kerrang as well as guitarist/vocalist here and self-awareness goes with the territory – but nonetheless seems to be sincerely grasping to create something individual from them. For traditional doom, that’s about as much as you can ask and still hope to keep that “traditional” part intact. Still, as closer “Den of Serpents” enacts its psyche-devouring madness-swirl build to round out the album, Witchsorrow aren’t so out of league with some of what their countrymen in The Wounded Kings have been able to accomplish over the last several years, taking otherwise familiar elements and putting them to use in fascinating new ways. If not for the utter despair of the thing, you might even dare to call God Curse Us somewhat enlightened, at least in a conceptual sense.
Maybe that’s a little strong, but it’s not easy to make traditional doom sound fresh, and for the most part, Witchsorrow do that on God Curse Us, reveling in drear and overarching miseries with little to no letup sonically. Witch and Wilbraham prove immediately to be a formidable presence in the rhythm section, the crash of the latter serving as the anchor that seems to drag opener “Aurora Atra” infinitely downward. Much of God Curse Us keeps the ethic of the leadoff – lead with the riff, bury the throaty vocal, etc. – but what the 55-minute album does really well on its mostly extended tracks is create a sense of space. “God Curse Us,” which has the catchiest chorus of the seven songs, sounds fittingly like it was recorded in an open church in everything but the guitar solos, which sound punched in even if they weren’t. I guess modernity bleeds through no matter how hard you work to stop it, but Witchsorrow do pretty well in keeping a natural, grainy-horror-movie VHS vibe to the proceedings all the same, the unrelieved tension in “God Curse Us” carrying over to the even more plodding “Masters of Nothing.” Parts of “Megiddo” come close later, but “Masters of Nothing” is ultimately as slow as God Curse Us gets, and that’s plenty slow. Agonizingly slow, in fact. Ruskell has no trouble drawing out his vocals to suit the lurching riffs, as some might, and though the song picks up in its final third – Wilbraham’s crash a little low in the mix keeping time – it’s only to set up a deft return to the lumbering main riff that closes out the song, giving way to the interlude “Ab Antiquo,” on which ultra-quiet whispers accompany foreboding tom thuds and piano. It’s a quick mood piece to lead into “Megiddo,” but effective nonetheless in what it does. Like a lot of the record, it serves its purpose but isn’t really a landmark.