Witchfinder General’s 1983 album Friends of Hell is for those who just couldn’t get enough of Black Sabbath’s sound from the early to mid 1970s.
Their flavor of doom metal, which really wasn’t thought of as a genre then, would satisfy the fans of the dark sounds that Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward churned out from Master of Reality in 1971 to Sabotage in 1975.
The dark guitar tones, crushing slow riffs and Ozzy-esque wailing vocals are all there.
Plus, they wrote some pretty damn good songs too.
Much like Black Sabbath, they took their name from a movie. In their case, it was the 1968 flick Witchfinder General (with the alternative name The Conquering Worm in the U.S.) starring Vincent Price in the title role. And much like Black Sabbath, they sung songs about the occult and the darker side of life.
Founded in Stourbridge, England, in 1979, they released their first album, Death Penalty, in 1982, quickly followed by their second album, Friends of Hell in 1983. They would disband in 1984 and reform in 2006, releasing the album Resurrected in 2008, disbanding again that year.
Handling vocals on Friends of Hell is Zeeb Parkes, who sings in an Ozzy-esque wail, but doesn’t quite sound like Ozzy. But, he didn’t need to sound like Ozzy, though. His vocals are the driving force on Friends of Hell, helping give them their own sound.
Guitarist Phil Cope and bassist Rod Hawkes, on the other hand, could pass off as Iommi and Butler to those that aren’t diehard Sabbath fans. They don’t rip off Sabbath’s riff, Witchfinder General’s music is definitely their own, but they do sound like Sabbath if Sabbath decided to just stay with their early sound.
Grounding things is drummer Graham Ditchfield. He’s pretty consistent as far as keeping things nailed down with a steady beat.
The first three tracks on the album are also the best in my opinion.
“Love on Smack” kicks off Friends of Hell in kick-ass fashion. It’s reminiscent of Sabbath in their faster moments. It could easily be mistaken for a Sabbath track if it weren’t for Parkes’ vocals. From the main riff to the solo, it just drips of Sabbath and their blues-influence heaviness. It’s one of the best tracks on the album and you’ll remember it long after listening. You’ll find yourself saying the closing verses “she’s dying, she’s dying, she’s dying … she’s dead.”
“Last Chance,” on the other hand is pretty much doom metal all the way through, with its heavy and slow opening riffs to its whirling guitars throughout the verses. If you like “Children of the Grave,” then this one is probably right up your alley.
After two, rather dark, Sabbathy tunes, Witchfinder General kicks into rock anthem gear with “Music.” It’s kind of a shock after the first two tracks, but man, is it catchy. After the first time the chorus, you’ll find yourself singing “I need music, everyday!” It’s like a fusion of 70s and 80s arena rock with a big sound and fist pounding bravado.
Now, they don’t slouch on the rest of the album, but after those first three songs, it’s difficult to maintain that level. Not that other songs don’t come close.
“Friends of Hell” is lyrically speaking about as Sabbath as you can get. It’s a narrative song about a protagonist hunting down some devil worshippers who he watches melt by the end of the song. While pretty good, it doesn’t match the songs before it as far as energy.
Witchfinder General stays in the narrative territory throughout most of the album, with most of them being a story within themselves, whether it be about someone who considers themselves a coward for not being able to kill themselves (“Requiem for Youth”) to another song about contemplating suicide because of a lost love (“I Lost You”).
Parkes really shines as a vocalist on “Shadowed Images.” You can hear quite a bit of the sound that would go on to become the doom metal we know today intermingle with a lot of Sabbathy riffs here. It’s an enthralling song with an almost ethereal feel to it.
“Quietus,” though, comes closest to matching the first three songs on the album. It kicks off like you’re watching elephants walk up a hill then takes off as the elephants hit the pinnacle and start stampeding downhill. It goes a lot of different places and has a great instrumental section to it. In a way, it reminds you how Sabbath would meander into almost unrelated instrumental territory at the end of the song. Definitely recommend this one.
Friends of Hell is definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of doom metal, early Black Sabbath or both. The songs are strong, memorable and you’ll be singing the choruses before you realize it.
Also, if you love doom metal, then this is a must listen. You’ll hear one of the roots which the modern doom metal movement springs from.