The 50 best albums of 2023
The Kerrang! verdict on the 50 albums that shaped 2023.
As given titles go, The Witch Queen is a good one. Perhaps its most famous bearer is Maxine Sanders, the British occultist, who was renowned as the mother of Alexandrian Wicca, in cahoots with her ex-husband and equally distinguished man of magic, the late Alex Sanders.
As a Cheshire teen in the 1960s, Maxine took part in rituals and ceremonies at famed magical site (and future rural postcode of footballers Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham and Dwight Yorke, as well as The 1975’s Matty Healy) Alderley Edge. Here, her partner trained her in magic to the level of her eventual rank aged just 18, and soon after was the site of their handfasting. Eventually, they moved to London – Notting Hill Gate, to be precise – where their flat became something of a school for would-be magical priests and priestesses, as the pair primed a chosen few for their coven.
The Witch Queen eventually set aside her crown in the 1970s, going so far as to ceremonially burn her robes and artefacts as a way of underlining her retirement. But just as magic shouldn’t be entered into too hastily, neither can it be too readily discarded. Especially not when you’re as well-known as the Sanders were.
“Alex Sanders loved getting publicity,” explains Tom Templar. “They’d partake in documentaries, photoshoots with him and Maxine naked on the Moors with swords in-hand and a pentacle. They advised on this movie, Eyes Of The Devil, that [U.S. actress and Manson family victim] Sharon Tate was in – they were brought in as the witchcraft consultants. They would go onstage with the band Black Widow as well. It was all very rock’n’roll witchcraft.
“I always thought it was incredibly cool,” he laughs. “I read her book and thought, 'Maxine: Witch Queen. Well, there’s a song.’”
And so, Tom and his band Green Lung wrote about Maxine, then filmed a video for it at occult-tastic London drinking den Helgi’s. A mutual friend even introduced Green Lung to the song’s now-77-year-old subject’s handmaiden, who came down to “consult on the witchcraft”. As the band “stayed up all night running up a grand on the bar tab”, Tom had a worry about the finished products being sent over to his muse: “What if she hates it?”
And what did Maxine Sanders, legendary Witch Queen, mother of Alexandrian Wicca, and one of the most famous occultists in British history say?
“She sent back a very happy giraffe emoji.”
Tom is recounting all this to Kerrang! from a leather armchair in infamous Soho rock hostelry The Ship, giggling into his pint of bitter as he reaches the punchline. Next to him, Green Lung guitarist Scott Black raises his eyebrows with a similar degree of both amusement and ‘would-you-believe-it?’ wonder.
Maxine isn’t alone in approving of Green Lung. Their own brand of rock’n’roll witchcraft, steadily bubbling away since 2019’s Woodland Rites debut, is right now blossoming into something truly marvellous. Last month, the band – Tom and Scott, plus bassist Joseph Ghast, drummer Matt Wiseman and organist John Wright – released their brilliant third album, This Heathen Land, to universally loud applause, including full-marks from Kerrang!. This week, they head out on their biggest UK tour to date. In the run up, demand for tickets to the London show was so great it was almost immediately upgraded from the impressive enough Scala in King’s Cross to Camden’s legendary Electric Ballroom.
“That’s mad,” says Scott. “Every day I have to keep going back to check the email thread to see that it’s definitely real.”
“It’s amazing, though,” adds Tom. “We seriously never set out with any big plan for it to be like this.”
“At the beginning, we thought it’d be cool to have Woodland Rites out on vinyl, and our goal was to maybe sell out [beloved Camden dive bar] The Black Heart,” says Scott.
Green Lung’s beginnings were even less auspicious than this. “It was,” begins Tom, the result of various members’ bands “failing really hard.” He’d been attempting to do a doom band that ripped off British torchbearers Electric Wizard. Scott, meanwhile, was trying to do his own doom project. At various points, they had played in various extreme metal and hardcore outfits as well, while Scott, a virtuoso player, had also schooled himself via the likes of Dream Theater. All these bands were, both men say, rubbish.
When that all ended, Green Lung started jamming as an instrumental band in the vein of Earthless. “But we weren’t good enough for that,” notes Scott. Then, after drunkenly typing the words “doom band” into Gumtree having decided his own band wasn’t going to work out, Tom got in touch.
“The songs were just amazing,” recalls Tom. “They were heavy and doomy, but they had this sense of melody as well. There was something different. I love Electric Wizard, but the emotional range of it is, ‘Let’s do some acid and have sex, and then kill each other.’ That's wicked. I can take 14 albums of it. But for me [making music], I can get bored of that.”
With an approach from Scott of, “What if Brian May had joined Black Sabbath?”, Green Lung certainly fit with their doomy peers, while also standing colourfully away from them. Woodland Rites was released in 2019, followed two years and one pandemic later by second record Black Harvest. Shortly before the record, Scott remembers what he sees as a turning point in their fortunes, when coming out of the pandemic they played to “probably seven people” in Tiverton, “our worst show ever”, and then the following week played to a packed tent at Bloodstock. When the album was released, they hit the road in Europe with no less a band than Clutch. This summer, they enjoyed an absolutely rammed tent at Download.
And now there’s This Heathen Land. It might just be the record that takes Green Lung permanently out of the stoner and doom scene from which they sprouted, and become one of Britain’s finest rock bands, full-stop.
“I’m never gonna repudiate the stoner scene,” says Scott. “I love it, it’s where we started off. But we really don't want to make the same record again and again. We really wanted to be a big-ass, gentlemanly, hard rock band, and do a record with a really [Deep Purple's 1984 album] Perfect Strangers level of production. Creatively, I just wouldn't want to try and do Woodland Rites again. I love that record, and I get why it might be someone’s favourite, but there's so much I want to do. There's so much more room to explore.”
Tom describes his bandmates as musicians. For himself, he posits that he is, “a lyrics and vibes guy”. It’s this that gives Green Lung so much of their character and context. Focusing on figures like Maxine, ancient folklore, magic and “a general feeling of rural old weirdness”, it’s turned the band into a gateway to an older world full of the weird and wonderful.
“I grew up in the middle of the countryside in Norfolk,” he explains. “It was really agricultural, literally next to a farm, there was fuck-all to do. I remember walking around and taking pictures of mushrooms.”
Similarly, Scott grew up in Devon, in “proper Midsomer Murders territory”. Both nod in agreement at the idea that big-skied isolation and being surrounded by field and forest have an effect on people, and again that there’s something intriguing and bewitching about the oddities of the old world that still lives in these places through relics and curiosities, as well as old customs. Morris dancing and such.
“I don’t even think it’s a conscious thing when you grow up like that. You don’t even realise it’s weird,” says Tom. “In my village where I grew up, we had so many weird things. We had this thing called the plough match. Every bloke in the village who owned a tractor would come along, and they would all compete to see who could plough the best furrow. It would get judged, and then everyone would get really fucking pissed. That's where I grew up. So it was never like, ‘Oh, I'm trying really hard to get into weird English agricultural folk culture,’ because I was in it.”
As self-described book nerd, Tom found himself devouring fantasy stories, works on old folklore, and books on the occult, including the novels of British author Dennis Wheatley, whose writings were a mix of spy-thriller cunning and a very real knowledge of magic, almost always told as cautionary tales against using such powers.
Did you ever try any of this yourself?
“Me? No,” he laughs. “But me and my mates, we’d go and take magic mushrooms and sit in the woods in the dark and listen to metal. That was fun, but we didn't go out and murder anyone or anything!”
Scott says that these days, Tom has been known to make him and the rest of the band walk out to “some old stone circle for a photoshoot”. Creatively, this comes out in their tales of people like Maxine, or on Hunters In The Sky, a song dealing with the right to roam, the ancient right to explore land currently in a fight for its life in Dartmoor at the hands of one single wealthy, ham-faced moron trying to get laws on ‘his’ land changed.
As fantastical as it sounds, all of it relates to something in the real world, some place, some marker. To wit, This Heathen Land comes with a map marked out with places mentioned in the lyrics: Alderley Edge, Notting Hill Gate, Pendle Hill, Wistman’s Wood.
“Every single location we've got on there relates to a specific lyric in one of the songs,” says Tom. “It was designed by Richard Wells, who’s a genius and works in TV and film. He did, like, Mark Gatiss’ Dracula, and he’s done a lot with us, too. I just gave him the longest leash ever, and he did this. These eight songs, they're all rooted in local folklore, and they can kind of be a guide. It's like a journey.”
This interest in an older time – “It’s almost a kind of nostalgia,” says Scott, “I feel it myself after living in London for so long” – isn’t just confined to Green Lung and their music. Interest in folk traditions and myths and pre-industrial life and superstition is currently enjoying an appropriately green patch. Ari Aster’s daylight-drenched folk-horror film Midsommar is already regarded as a modern masterpiece. Earlier this year, the BBC aired an adaptation of British author (and former Kerrang! writer) Ben Myers’ brilliant pre-industrial crime tale The Gallows Pole. Musically, it can be found in the huge surge of interest in bands like Irish folk outfit Lankum and be-antlered European collective Heilung.
“We don’t deny that’s helped us, and it's been really lovely having a feeling that you're part of something,” says Tom. “I remember walking in Rough Trade Records and seeing a whole table of witchy, folky books that I didn’t think anyone gave a fuck about. I could be a massive hipster and moan that the stuff I like is popular, but it's great. I don't know what's going on, but long may it continue.”
“There’s been so much of that stuff, like that film The VVitch,” adds Scott. “And A Field In England, all this folk horror stuff is brilliant, and it’s a big influence on us. And then there’s stuff like The League Of Gentlemen and Inside Number Nine, that’s got a similar thing.”
“Honestly,” says Tom, “Reece Shearsmith [League Of Gentlemen and Inside Number Nine legend] is probably a bigger influence on Green Lung than Ozzy.”
With this rekindling of interest in the old has also come an unpleasant nationalist element, similar to the less-welcome corners of the study of magic. Green Lung had the foresight to nip the inevitable question of where they themselves stand on this sort of thing very early on, when they released a patch of a green fist punching a sunwheel – often claimed to be an “ancient symbol” but was designed for Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler in the 1940s – with the emphatic words: 'Nazi Occultists Fuck Off'.
“It was important we did that. I mean, it was just a funny idea,” says Tom with a smile when it’s brought up. “As much as we say this stuff is [about] a Britain you’re not embarrassed about or whatever, and it’s history, the fash will still try to take all the folk stuff.”
“Go and have a look at the comments section for the video for Hunters In The Sky,” says Scott. “There’s comments on there being like, ‘What is this woke nonsense?’ There's nothing woke about it! There's two people of colour and a woman in the video, and that’s ‘woke nonsense’? It’s endemic in metal. It’s important to me that when we’re dealing with folklore and stuff, that it’s inclusive.”
“You've got an obligation in a way,” says Tom. “The comedian Stewart Lee always says you’ve got to prune your audience. He sometimes starts the show with something really fucking weird to just sort of keep diet fans away. I think it was kind of a good thing when we put that patch up. There were a bunch of people being like, ‘Oh, yeah, but…’ That that symbol was made for Heinrich Himmler's palace. You’re either thick or you’re fash. You’ve got to draw a line. It’s like Manowar: ‘Wimps and posers, leave the hall.’ It’s not for you.”
It should be noted that though this is all a serious, grown-up point, Green Lung are – and this is them saying it – "pretty silly, camp, humorous blokes". In that way of the classic English eccentric, there's often an impish amusement lying beneath the surface.
"One thing I really like about the band is that we are humorous," smiles Scott. "You can do spooky black magic, but there's also a lot of fun and humour there as well. The label asked us to do some playthroughs and gear videos for the internet. We were like, 'Yeah, but only do it if we can do it in the style of [cult British science video spoof] Look Around You.'"
Indeed, when explaining their name, Tom reveals that as well as referencing an area in a city with trees and grass and foliage, an escape from urban concrete, it's also just the sort of thing that sounds like a funny weed reference a stoner band might use. It all adds up into to their character.
"It's that kind of Britishness that's indefinable, but you know it when you see it," adds Tom. "And that's still kind of anti-authority. It's what all the peasants are doing in the village, while the lord of the manor is doing whatever. You have the gentry, but everyone else is sitting around a fire getting fucking drunk!"
"That's a thing in folk music. Metal's basically folk music, if you look at it like that."
A lot of folk like Green Lung. More all the time, right now. They may laugh at the notion of rock stardom – “We’ve sold out all these venues, I’m just waiting for my yacht money to come through,” chuckles Scott – but they’re also aware that they’re doing something very nice. And just as they started wanting to sell out the Black Heart and wondered ‘what next?’ after they did it, they’re already looking at things and learning and adapting.
This Heathen Land isn’t just a very good record – and it really, really is – but it’s also one carved into shape by the band’s experiences. Tom points to watching Danish metal legends Mercyful Fate at a festival Green Lung did last year as an example. It was dark and heavy and metal, but by god was it catchy. Meanwhile, as main songwriter, Scott, says that playing to massive audiences on the Clutch tour got him noticing the bits of their songs that really worked in that environment. When they hit the road with it this week, expect the shows to be phenomenal.
“None of this stuff feels like we're gunning for it. It just happens because we just fucking love it,” beams Scott. “It’s that eccentric, very British, don’t give a fuck about the charts thing, where somehow you end up getting in anyway. It’s implausible, totally implausible what’s happening. Maybe it’s a good precedent for sticking to your guns.”
“It’s unbelievable what’s happened, really,” says Tom with a smile. “It’s weird, but it’s amazing.”
Very much like Green Lung themselves. Come, come, come to their Sabbath…
Green Lung are on tour across the UK now – get your tickets.
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