Electric Wizard are a great example of how a band can seem to be doing the same thing over and over and yet wind up with a pretty varied discography, for good or ill. They’re a quartet from England that started out as a trio, with Jus Oborn on vocals and guitar, Tim Bagshaw on bass and Mark Greening on drums. This lineup lasted until 2002, at which point Greening left and was replaced by Justin Greaves, former drummer for Iron Monkey (basically, an English Eyehategod). Greaves was the bridge between lineups, as he stuck around when Bagshaw departed to form Ramesses with Greening. Oborn then recruited female guitarist Liz Buckingham of 13 and Sourvein (he wound up marrying her, too) and bassist Rob Al-Issa. This lineup lasted until 2006, when Greaves left. He was replaced by Shaun Rutter, and when Al-Issa quit in 2008, some guy named Tas joined, and that’s Electric Wizard circa 2010.
The original trio lineup recorded four albums: a self-titled 1995 debut; 1997’s Come My Fanatics…; 2000’s Dopethrone; and 2002’s Let Us Prey, as well as 1998’s four-song Supercoven EP and the odd split single here and there. The Oborn/Buckingham/Al-Issa/Greaves lineup can be heard on 2004’s We Live (the cover of which actually lists the band as The Electric Wizard) and 2007’s Witchcult Today; as far as I know, the Oborn/Buckingham/Al-Issa/Rutter version of the band never recorded (unless he drums on their split single with Reverend Bizarre, which I haven’t heard but have heard bad things about). And now, on Black Masses, it’s Oborn/Buckingham/Tas/Rutter.
Most critics call Dopethrone the band’s best album, but I think a lot of them are responding as much to its admittedly awesome cover art (a painting of Satan doing bonghits that looks like it should be adorning the side of a van) as to its music, which is distorted and muddy in a way that doesn’t actually serve the songs. I prefer Electric Wizard when they clean up a little, so the interplay between instruments—which, for all their deliberate primitivism, is actually quite impressive at times; they’re not technicians, but they can set up a righteous post-Sabbath groove—is clearly audible. For my money, the best examples of Electric Wizard on record are Come My Fanatics… (which also finds the band taking a left turn into almost Bill Laswell-esque psychedelic dub territory on the instrumental “Ivixor B/Phase Inducer,” a trick they’d repeat on the piano-led “Night of the Shape” from the underrated Let Us Prey) and We Live, on which a crisp sound helped introduce, and showcase, the two-guitar lineup. While 2007’s Witchcult Today had a fuzzed-out sound, its retro feel worked quite well, and the band wrote some impressive songs; it’s another strong record from a band that’s never made a bad one.
The same is true of Black Masses. Sonically, it’s the closest the two-guitar version of the band has come to the massive wall of hateful noise the original trio constructed on Dopethrone. It’s raw and ugly, with plenty of feedback and distortion, and effects warping Oborn’s voice, though they can’t quite mask the fact that somewhere along the line, he became a real singer, not just some guy yelling. After a single listen, it’s impossible to pick out individual songs as particular highlights, though it’s important to point out that “Venus in Furs” is not a Velvet Underground cover. Shaun Rutter may be the best drummer the band’s ever had; he’s definitely the most active, playing more fills than his predecessors and driving the music forward where in the past it had frequently mistaken sludgy inertia for crushing power. Black Sabbath‘s secret weapon wasn’t their ultra-heavy guitar riffs, it was their swinging rhythm section, and Rutter’s no Bill Ward, but he’s got an almost Dale Crover-ish ability to make a snare drum sound like a door the size of your house slamming on your head. There are some excellent, ultra-fried guitar solos on Black Masses, too, especially on the disc’s next-to-last track, “Scorpio Curse,” and the closing instrumental, “Crypt of Drugula,” features plenty of non-solo guitar noise as Rutter and Tas lock in and throbs and thunder and lightning crash around them.
Electric Wizard’s discography is all of a piece—downtuned, stoner doom is their thing, period—but there are definite gradations of quality, and Black Masses is easily one of their strongest albums. If you’ve never heard them before now, it’s not a bad place to start, not at all. (Buy it from Amazon.)