Review by Joan Singh
As most loyal fans of Crisis will find—Gospel of the Witches is a departure from the core metal/death sound of their 90’s heyday. But that’s to be expected. Away from the East Coast metal scene after the Crisis break-up, Karyn traveled to California to learn more about her experiences with the incorporeal, having had countless episodes of what could best be described as “encounters with the supernatural” during her childhood and onward.
In between self-discovery and music-making with a brief stint in husband Davide Tiso’s band Ephel Duath, we find a new Karyn, grounded in her abilities to communicate with her own spirit guide and with humanity through the medium of music. Ever the creative soul, she’s crafted and pursued leatherworks, paintings, and mediumship and come back full circle to music.
Gospel of the Witches’ debut album, Salem’s Wounds, is Karyn’s latest mesmerizing project with husband Davide Tiso of Ephel Duath and Bob Vigna from Immolation on guitar, Ross Dolan, also from Immolation, on bass and backing vocals, and Charlie Schmid from Vaura on drums. Each member brings a range of experience to the table.
To me, the first significant song is the opening track, aptly-titled “Omphalos”, which becomes just that – an object of power, positioned to propel the listener on a journey of arcane reflexivity. Karyn’s “I am no one, I am nothing, I am nowhere,” juxtaposed with “I am everything, I am everywhere, I am everyone,” starts with clean vocals and quickly metamorphoses into a growled delivery layered atop Ross Dolan’s own deathly vocals. It sets both the tone and expectations high with a powerful intro to the album. Its subtle ascending vocal tempo creates an escalating mood, a musical ascension of sorts. Short, simple and leading; it directs the listener right into the second song, “The Alchemist”, in which the theme of being an acolyte learning the ways of the occult arises from both the composition of Karyn’s music and lyrical content that points heavily towards mysticism and transmutation – “I am no longer the dust and lifeless, waiting to be swept away…” and “…I hear those words, kept unsaid, and I walk in the world of the living and the dead.” A little more than halfway through the song, we hear a bit of the old Crisis as Karyn alternates styles with bits of clean and heavier vocals with Dolan backing the choruses.
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And so begins our journey, alongside Karyn, towards self-discovery. In a Lovecraftian way, we learn of ritualism and guidance from both Ancient Ways and Aradia, where verses become chants foretelling haunting revelations of mankind existing as only a small part of the greater world. The driving melodies lead the ear to witness the rites in progress. Karyn’s lyrics paint a haunting, yet enlightening, revelation of liberation. Aradia, itself, is used interchangeably for “Gospel of the Witches,” featured as part of the title of the original book or religious text, from which the band’s name most likely originates. It’s also the name of a person in the book, allegedly the daughter of Diana, Queen of the Witches and Lucifer, portrayed as a sun god. In 1899, it later caused quite a stir and came to be a major influence on the modern Wiccan belief system. It details rites and beliefs of a sect of Italian witches, which is intriguing considering that Karyn’s husband lives in Italy, and she, herself, spent several years living there with him.
It’s interesting to me to note that Gospel of the Witches has a pronounced gothic tinge to their overall sound. With both Dolan and Vigna from Immolation on board, I had expected to hear a composition replete with shredding guitar and complex death metal composition, tempered by Davide’s somewhat lyrical guitar-work and pacing. Instead, we’re indulged with a surprising side of Immolation’s palette that moves in a more gothic-rock direction and has Karyn, at times, invoking early Switchblade Symphony with her vocals instead of Dawn Crosby or even her own previous works.
As two halves of a greater whole, the songs “Mother” and “Father” are a nice compliment to each other. They’re a payment of respect to the progenitors of the universe and not just the parents that gave birth to us-though one can interpret its multilayered meanings to differing conclusions. With Mother in particular, the lyrics really resonated with me as I lost my own mother to disease when I was 23, so I took the lyrics of “Mother, I can feel your flesh burning, Mother, I can smell your sacrifice” as both profound and cathartic, with a call-and-response relationship built in. However, what Karyn is doing here is relating Aradia’s story, her origins, the depth of her beginnings. In contrast, the song Father radiates a more anchored feeling than what Mother produces. Its potent lyrical structuring with repetitive chants like “I am” followed by words such as invictus sets forth a dominant tone of invocation making it read like Delphic verses in the night. What we can infer here is Aradia’s conversation with her own Father, stating her known identity; she is aware of her origins and unconquerable spirit.
In many places throughout the album, Karyn layers her voice with Dolan’s, creating an interplay that harkens to a singer possessed. This maniacal effect plays with our aural assumptions of what is masculine and feminine, giving equal play to both genders and allowing them to become one. What results is a ritualistic profoundness similar to an altered state of consciousness. We become active listeners in her tale of the first witch.Perhaps the one song that really brings this concept home for me is “Goddess of Light”. In particular, the part where Karyn sings, “Bear witness to my eternal rebirth”.
Through a quick perusal of the definition of the Goddess of Light deity that Karyn refers to, it’s possible to interpret the song as an homage to the divine feminine. What also struck me about this reference to the Goddess of Light was how it ties into my own conversations with my mother-in-law, who is a Hindu. An equivalent deity to the Goddess of Light, tales of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi relate a story of The Churning of the Ocean in which her disappearance from the world leads to darkness and chaos overtaking the earth with asuras (spirits) taking over. After much work and perseverance between the other deities and humans, Lakshmi returns, overturning the demons and making the world safe once again. Karyn’s music alludes to this kind of ethereal world-building.
With a surprising change in tone, at least in its intro, we hear “The Secret”, the tenth song on the album. It opens with a spacier introduction bordering on lounge-like beats. Her lyrics, “if you don’t go within, you go without,“ seem to sum up her inner discoveries and confessions. There’s a subtle extended invitation to join the dark with her, making it feel as though you’re witness to something beyond the sacred. However, the lyrical play on words could also reference Buddhist Zen ideas of self-discovery and self-evident truths contrasted with a activities of people looking for external signs of faith as a validation or sign of reprieve from their life’s troubles through pseudo-spirituality and mysticism, or people who superficially claim to practice “black magic” or “witchcraft” without knowledge of the traditions, lore and history of what they’ve appropriated.
Composition-wise, I was surprised by the relative simplicity of the music compared to her earlier works, as fans who go in expecting anything resembling Crisis aren’t going to find what they’re looking for instrumentally here. Immolation fans will frankly be shocked. There’s nothing inherently wrong with musicians of Immolation’s background coming together to produce music of this type, but it should almost come with a warning for certain types of fans who may be more close-minded or fixed in their ideas of musical expression and range and are put off by change.
In many ways, what Karyn has done here is exactly the opposite of the progression Carl McCoy underwent when transitioning from Fields of the Nephilim to simply, Nephilim. His was a journey from atmospheric and gothic rock to gothic-influenced death metal, also steeped in mysticism. Hers has been a journey from metal to atmospheric, metal-influenced gothic music – with a movement from introspection and to the occult.
With “Salem’s Wounds”, we’re once again sharing in her confession with a leading gothic rock melody. There’s an abject feeling listening to her use of “hallelujah”, conveying an inversion of Christian traditions. Her repetition of the word “samsara”, the reincarnation cycle, reminds me of Hindu myths and how the religion at one point, and still to a degree today, was considered pagan to western Christian hegemony. It’s through these intentional nuances of lyrical construction that Karyn imparts a spiritual epiphany. If the NBC tv-series Constantine stays afloat next season, this should be on the series soundtrack.
I’ve had an advance copy of the album for about a week now, and ultimately, I had to listen to it twice before I began to realize its full thaumaturgic intentions. As each song unfolds, Karyn’s ability to build a world very different from what we’ve known of Crisis emerges. The same can be said of Vigna and Dolan’s parts here – maybe even more so. I, myself. had to shed my preconceived notions of a possible death metal album because of Dolan and Vigna’s involvement. What we see, instead, is not a brutal, in-your-face assault of Karyn’s previous politics, but the mature, cultivated cosmos of a world that she’s been quietly exploring for decades. As a personal project for Karyn, it’s evident that her spiritual and existential experiences are grounded in her musical composition, paralleling her growth as an artist and medium. It goes with the tone she’s set for the entirety of the album.
By the end of this album, the listener is left with a somber and dirge-like atmosphere, prepping the ear to trade in what’s it known from its physical life for a second helping of spiritual self-discovery. In a manner common to all things esoteric, the album’s chants and dark, meandering atmosphere leaves the listener with a feeling of transition, waiting for something “more”. Whether that “more” is in the form of an actual visitation, only Karyn Crisis can tell us.
Full Track listing:
1. Omphalos (2:00)
2. Alchemist (6:28)
3. Ancient Ways (4:34)
4. Aradia (3:42)
5. Mother (6:05)
6. Father (4:54)
7. Goddess of Light (4:00)
8. Howl At The Moon (5:45)
9. Pillars (3:16)
10. The Secret (3:32)
11. Salem’s Wounds (4:48)
12. The Sword and The Stone (4:05)
13. The Ascent (5:22)
14. White Willow (2:24)