Album review: Witch Fever – Congregation
Something wicked this way comes: Mancunian doom-punks Witch Fever unleash their full power on captivating debut…
Amy Walpole was sitting in front of her stereo when she first began to doubt the existence of God. Growing up within the cultural cocoon of the church community in west Yorkshire, the Witch Fever vocalist had always known the power of music. Hymns like Blessed Be Thy Name and hooky soft-rock cuts like Where The Spirit Of The Lord Is were woven into worship, providing what seemed to be spirit-lifting links to a higher power. When Amy began to discover her own sounds, however, from such ostensibly dark-hearted outfits as Bring Me The Horizon and My Chemical Romance, it began to dawn that her feelings weren’t being driven by the man above.
“It was like, ‘Fuck! I’m not feeling God – that’s just a nice chord progression!’” she grins today, remembering that pivotal moment of liberation. “Music can be a very powerful tool.”
In the years since, Amy and her Manchester-based bandmates – guitarist Alisha Yarwood, bassist Alex Thompson and drummer Annabelle Joyce – have sought to harness that power to challenge the stranglehold that organised religion holds over so many people’s lives, and the patriarchal superstructures underpinning it. Their band name is a provocative reference to the phenomenon that saw spurious charges of witchcraft murderously weaponised against tens of thousands of women between the 16th and 18th centuries. Their music explores how that insidious practice of using moral expectation as a method of control continues today. Upcoming debut album Congregation (out 10 days before Halloween) draws its emotional power from real-life trauma suffered.
“I’ve always been drawn back to writing lyrics about my experience in the church,” Amy says, leafing delicately through the past. “My parents joined when they were 19 or 20. They met each other there. They were at times in their lives where they’d just left home, and they found themselves welcomed in by this big [ready-made] family of people. Before you know it, you’re 20 years deep and you’ve given so much money – so much of your life – to this church, that it becomes very difficult to walk away. When I was a young child, I didn’t really know. It was just something that we did every week, without thinking about it. Then I hit puberty and started growing up. Suddenly all of these rules were enforced about what it is to be a woman and how we’re expected to behave…”
As Congregation’s 13 tracks unfold, it becomes apparent there are deeper traumas to be unpicked from Amy’s abstractly evocative lyrics. ‘I feel you rushing me / A beg for incomplete / I’m under your tongue / And this don’t feel fun anymore,’ teases Snare at full throttle. ‘Engorge yourself / It’s meant to be / I’m overwhelmed / ’Cause it sets you free…’ she cries on the dizzied Slow Burn. The band acknowledge that acerbic closer 12 is the most uncomfortably direct they’ve ever been; understanding the sensitivity of her story, however, Amy declines to go into specifics, holding those for a time when she has a greater platform, and when they won’t deflect attention from the music itself.
At its core, Witch Fever is a vehicle for tackling those (micro and macro) aggressions at their rotten roots. Individual spirituality is not a problem for them, but wielding belief to control others is. “We all put our own message into what Amy says,” Alex explains. “For me, that’s about individuality and power in autonomy. Having that confidence in who you are. Don’t be a sheep. Your difference is your biggest strength!”
The singer nods. “The main thing that I want to speak about on this album, aside from trauma, is that there is a patriarchal structure, not just in church, but in everything,” Amy states. “It’s controlling women, non-binary people, queer people: making these people’s lives way harder than they need to be, making them feel like their very identities are problematic. It’s something that I grew up with in school, in jobs, everywhere…”
Witch Fever never set out to be the figureheads they’ve quickly become. Spending a couple of hours in the quartet’s company, they’re more like siblings than stern-faced revolutionaries. Amy and Alisha sit shoulder-to-shoulder, alternately pensive, playful and protective of each other in the flat they share in Salford. Alex drinks from a glass of wine in front of an ornate mirror, answering questions with a born confidence. Annabelle sips from a jug of beer, quieter than their bandmates with a pink fleece pulled up around their face, but offering real insight when they do speak up.
“I’ve kind of fallen into talking about these things by accident,” shrugs Amy. “We’re not coming at it with an agenda. We’ve been a band for six years now, and the lyrics have always been of that ilk. For me, it was just an outlet: a way to make something negative positive and fun. I’m just talking about lived experience: stuff that has happened to me and so many other people.”
And yet, there is something undeniably timely about this band’s rise. On a global level, the United States’ move to restrict abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade has seen ‘The Land Of The Free’ take a step towards the dark ages, with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito literally referring to legal precedent from the 1250s to justify his decision. Closer to home, the UK has just slumped to 14th place on LGBTQ+ rights in Europe due to a lack of action on conversion therapy and gender recognition. Hell, the deputy leader of the UK opposition Angela Rayner was just openly accused of trying to distract the prime minister by crossing and uncrossing her legs in parliament.
Anyone who thinks they can’t relate should also look at the current cost of living crisis – where billions are disappearing into governmental black holes and corporations are raking in record profits while normal people struggle to decide whether to ‘heat or eat’.
The 13 tracks of Congregation, particularly, rage with the discontent and desperation of right now. Perhaps that’s because of their short gestation: where the band had previously summoned songs over weeks and months, here they needed to prep a full album on a tight post-pandemic schedule, with studio time booked. When producer Sam Grant got the thumbs-up for an autumn 2021 tour with his band Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, proceedings were moved up by another month. Booking into an Airbnb in Newcastle they smashed the whole record out over the course of 10 days at the renowned Blank Studios.
“We had this massive pressure to go outside our comfort zones and write songs so much quicker than we normally would,” explains Alisha of a process that saw her wringing out riff after colossal riff. “I feel like we’re now so much better for it. At first, [this band] was about knowing what I could do. Now it’s trying things that I can’t.”
True to that, their old ‘doom-punk’ tag feels too insubstantial for the record they’ve delivered..
Sure, gleefully gobby advance-single Blessed Be Thy is a furiously ramshackle twist on the aforementioned song of praise (which, brilliantly, had Amy’s mum Googling to see whether her daughter had contravened any copyright regulations) and Deadlights (a reference to Stephen King’s IT the horror-obsessed singer is delighted to see K! be the first to get) might be the perfect example of their older sound, but there is seismic progress elsewhere. Market, for instance, is a bass-driven behemoth where Amy’s righteous yelps (‘You tried to breach me / And I brought you to your knees’) tumble across a sea of almost industrial heaviness. I Saw You Dancing is a breathtaking blend of abstract post-punk and squalling alt. metal. The magnificent title-track will surely become their new calling-card: five minutes of wailing atmospherics and mountainous six-strings of which any band in heavy music would be proud.
Predictably, when the band attempt to pick out sonic reference points, they stretch well beyond the L7-meets-Black Sabbath elevator pitch on which many of us were originally sold. Alisha rattles off her tellingly eclectic Recently Played on Spotify, from Warpaint to Talking Heads to Depeche Mode to Elliott Smith to Deftones to King Tubby to CLT DRP. Amy admits to drawing from the unexpected likes of Brooklyn indie-rockers Big Thief and the solo work of their vocalist Adrianne Lenker, Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, and Baltimore post-hardcore collective Pianos Become The Teeth. Acts like Show Me The Body and Ho99o9, she continues, have given her the confidence to express her self as she sees fit: “Just letting the emotions speak rather than militantly trying to hit all the right notes.”
But is it a case of confrontation, subversion, or catharsis? “It’s really a blend of all three,” Amy grins. “I enjoy taking words and language that have been forced down my throat for years and years and years by fuckin’ old men, and making them my own...”
As enthusiastic as they are to emphasise the importance of the collective and to lift up those around them, Witch Fever are in no hurry to be associated with any particular scene. In times of hardship over the past half-century, they know, punk rock has tended to flourish. Too often, however, those movements have been opportunistically hijacked by individuals with no real understanding of struggle, nor any genuine interest in making positive change.
“I’m sick of seeing white men in balaclavas,” sighs Amy, as we probe whether they’ve seen any recent punk rock resurgence. “I’m just gonna put that out there.”
“Skinny boys in suits with rich parents…” continues Alisha.
“Who maybe went to private school…” grins the singer.
“Probably went to private school,” the guitarist bats back. “[Even historically], I think punk’s reputation is quite different to what it actually was. There weren’t a lot of women, non-binary or queer people when the genre was in its heyday – those people who would’ve really gotten something they needed out of it. The main bands weren’t really working class. They weren’t really what they were trying to sell. It was kinda false. Maybe [punk] never really has been what it should be.”
“I think there’s something to be said about how the industry in general allows punk musicians – particularly punk men – to be absolute c**ts,” Amy runs with the topic, unleashing her righteous anger with indignation and relish. “We’ve played gigs with punk acts before who’ve been absolute bastards. We opened for a band in Bristol a few years ago where I remember so vividly that the frontman got onstage and kicked the mic stand over for no reason at like four in the afternoon – just because he felt like displaying some sort of aggression. It’s frustrating because the reality is that men are allowed to behave in that way and, historically, have done so without being called out. If women behave like that, they’re ‘hysterical’ or ‘crying over nothing’, ‘angry’ or ‘unattractive’. It’s like you’ve crossed a line where, ‘We don’t want to listen because you’re not sexy anymore; you’re just causing a nuisance.’
“Punk is angry,” she continues. “Especially when you’re playing punk to protest something, that anger is important. But when you’re just a grumpy dude being angry for the sake of intimidation, that’s not it…”
In the UK particularly, there has been a groundswell of good people making radical music as of late. The close-knit geography of these isles, and the inherent desire to subvert stiff-upper-lip stereotypes, Alex and Annabelle suggest, both play their part in that. The post-Brexit, post-pandemic shitshow of our current political situation doesn’t hurt, either. (“Fuck the Tories,” Amy nails their colours to the mast, for anyone in doubt. “Boris should resign. All that jazz…”) Perhaps most significant, though, is the contemporary willingness for musical movements to be defined ideologically rather than sonically.
“I think that there’s a punk revival, but it’s more in attitude rather than actual sound,” expands Alex. “There are a lot of musicians speaking up. They can be punk in what they do, even if not strictly punk by genre. If you look at a band like Bob Vylan, it’s just the singer and the drummer. There’s not even a guitar onstage. By the narrow definition, that’s not punk. But everything they stand for – everything they’ve done – is punk.”
Despite their ever-weightier sound, Witch Fever also remain punk as fuck.
Momentum is building. They seem remarkably blasé about having landed a coveted slot opening for MCR on May 19 at the 30,000-cap Stadium MK shortly before we speak, to go with appearances at Manchester’s Outbreak Fest and Cheltenham’s 2000trees. Professed dreams of stepping up to stages as varied as Glastonbury, Madison Square Garden and, er, Later… With Jules Holland mightn’t seem as far-fetched as they once did. But the hunger for bigger, more diverse shows is all about spreading their righteous gospel further than before.
With all four members still scraping their livings in kitchens, bars and, in Annabelle’s case, at designer outlet Tessuti, they’re less concerned about fame and fortune than just getting paid to play the music they’ve poured themselves into – and never again having a 1am rendezvous at Manchester Victoria coach station to catch the Megabus to a show. “Oh God…” Amy curses those gear-laden treks with just a hint of irony. “If there’s one thing I’m thankful for, it’s never again having to do that.”
Ultimately, though, this coven will be defined by rising to power without having sold their souls, keeping the integrity, originality and fire in their hearts utterly uncompromised.
“When IDLES exploded, you could name 10 or 15 bands who were riding that wave,” Alex reflects on the success of their recent tourmates, and the raft of peers who followed. “But we’re glad that we’re not chasing a movement that’s already happening. We enjoy that we’re not just riding on the coattails of another band. If you’re going to be part of a scene in the first place, you want to be the ones not fitting in!”
So then, do Witch Fever have enough magic to spellbind the next generation?
“I hope so,” the bassist grins. “I think we’re alright…”
Witch Fever’s debut album Congregation is released October 21 via Music For Nations / Sony. They will be on tour in the UK this month, as well as performing at Outbreak Fest and 2000trees.
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