Witchfinder General – Death Penalty


After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.

Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.

While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.

Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.

Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.


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10 thoughts on “Witchfinder General – Death Penalty

  1. ralfe says:

    This album’s stupid. Supremely stupid. That’s sort of the whole charm of it.

    “Let’s trip on LSD!”
    “The economy, it fills my mind!”

    I like it, but it’s dumb. Something about it falls a tad short of mandatory classic status. All these NWOBHM bands sounded so WIMPY! … besides Venom, whose first couple albums are masterpieces of early extreme metal (even if their aesthetic was a joke and they didn’t have neoclassical aspirations, lol)

    1. Daniel says:

      No Stayer is even worse.
      “She sucked and licked my food,
      When it was running all over her face,
      She rolled over and then we screwed.”

      I thought everyone appreciated Maiden, Angel Witch, and Satan.

  2. tiny midget says:

    those delicious tits have me hypnotized…

  3. Graham Chapman says:


  4. Celtic Frosted Flakes says:

    So you think you can beat me
    Hang me completely
    You should know better than that
    I’ll take your wenches
    Tie them on benches
    Feed them to a rat
    So if you try me
    Even deny me
    I’ll beat you, you’re a pratt

    So come on folks
    Don’t try provoke
    ‘Cos to me you’re a fragile gnat

    ‘Cos I’m the Witchfinder General

  5. Richard Head says:

    Sounds like a load of corny shit to me. Evidently I’m supposed to pound beers or snort coke to get the maximum effect. Think I’ll just listen to something less cheesy instead.

    *opens iTunes and starts up Dream Theater – “Octivarium”*

    1. Celtic Frosted Flakes says:

      Yeah, Dream Theater is so progressive and innovative music! It communicates much deeper themes than this crass Witchfinder General! By the way, I finally figured out where your screen name comes from dude! Is it from the guy that used to own the Wild Rags label? (At least that’s what this here page tells me http://www.metalmaniacs.com/2011/wild-rags-records-a-true-story/)

      1. Richard Head says:

        No, that’s a far-out guess dude. Usually I’m just called Dick for short.

  6. Dismember your Member says:

    Tank’s honour and blood is also worthy of mention

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