Huntress is a relatively young band, having been around for just over five years. Vocalist Jill Janus, then going by the name PenelopeTuesdae, hired the Los Angeles-based band Professor to perform at a weekly club night she was hosting in Hollywood, and they joined forces. (This interview fills in more of Janus’ background; she’s also been a DJ and had a covers project with guitarist Dave Navarro.) In 2011, the group, renamed Huntress, signed to Napalm Records, releasing their debut album, Spell Eater, the following year and their second, Starbound Beast, in 2013.
The band’s music started out as a mix of thrash and old-school trad/power metal. Janus is a theatrical vocalist with a wide range, capable of almost operatic singing in the vein of Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford, Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson, or Ronnie James Dio, but she didn’t fully exploit it on the band’s early recordings. On Spell Eater, she frequently employed a hoarse, witchy screech strongly reminiscent of Nicole Lee, frontwoman of cult ’80s thrashers Znöwhite; it was a style some listeners found off-putting. It meshed relatively well with the thrash/death riffing the band was pumping out at the time, though. Huntress toured hard in search of an audience; I saw them open for DragonForce, and Janus was a stiff, awkward presence, strutting back and forth and frequently ducking behind the amps during guitar solos.
Starbound Beast was a more confident and musically ambitious effort. It included an instrumental intro and songs that had real, memorable melodies and choruses; ended with a capable cover of Judas Priest‘s “Running Wild”; and Motörhead‘s Lemmy contributed lyrics to “I Want to Fuck You to Death.” Janus was synthesizing the various elements of her style into a multifaceted but unified voice, emphasizing her singing over her shrieks, and becoming a better live performer, too. I saw them again, this time opening for Killswitch Engage, and she engaged the crowd much more capably, striking fewer gawky poses and delivering the songs with authority. Lyrically, she moved beyond the fantasy-metal tropes of the debut, seeming to hint at realism, if not autobiography.
Static, out this week (get it from Amazon), is the biggest step forward yet for Huntress. In every respect, it’s a more accomplished and focused album than its two predecessors. The band have stripped down their style, largely abandoning the thrash/death metal of the debut and going classicist/’80s instead. The intro to the first single, “Flesh,” nods to Slash‘s playing with Guns N’ Roses, while “Mania” could easily have fit on a pre-British SteelJudas Priest album; actually, its main riff sounds ripped from Black Sabbath circa Sabotage. Lead guitarist and founding member Blake Meahl‘s solos are showy without being absurd or overtaking the song, and rhythm guitarist Eli Santana and drummer Tyler Meahl (new additions to the group) are fluent in a variety of styles, from doom to the almost punky hard rock of “I Want to Wanna Wake Up,” while avoiding a trying-on-hats feel. All these songs sound like Huntress songs, not like covers or style-pastiches.
Lyrically, Janus has shifted gears in a big way, too. On Spell Eater and Starbound Beast, as their titles likely indicate, she mostly kept things in the realm of fantasy, singing about witches and spells and monsters, and dealing with life through metaphor (a tactic with a long history in metal, going back at least as far as Ronnie James Dio). The first five songs on Static—”Sorrow,” “Flesh,” “Brian,” “I Want to Wanna Wake Up,” and “Mania”—make up a kind of suite, in which the lyrics reflect very real, autobiographical pain. (This interview with Revolver offers more detail.) Janus sings about suicidal thoughts, about drinking and drugging oneself into oblivion, and on the album’s most surprising song, about mania as a force exerting a lycanthropic transformation on her. “Mania” features extraordinarily vivid lyrics, supported by Huntress‘s most steamrolleringly heavy music ever. At nearly nine minutes, the song serves as a bridge between Static‘s two halves, while also showcasing the band’s ever-increasing instrumental power.
The album’s second half is a little more escapist, returning to the occult, science fiction and fantasy lyrical tropes of previous releases. “Harsh Times On Planet Stoked” sounds like a lost Rob Zombie title, and “Static” is social commentary disguised as a monster story. But the feeling that all these songs are deeply personal for Janus is inescapable. That’s not the direction many would have predicted for Huntress after hearing either of their first two albums, but it’s a welcome and impressive evolution. They’ve always been good, but with Static, they’ve become really good.