It was 1980 and Iron Maiden had just ripped a bloody great big hole through the music establishment. I was in Virgin Records flipping through the records in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM what an acronym that was!) section when it sang out to me. The sleeve was black with a pentacle surmounting the head of the Goat of Mendes, the band’s name was Witchfynde and the record was called Give ‘Em Hell. I had a Dennis Wheatley paperback stuffed into the pocket of my leather jacket so what wasn’t to like?
Now close on 40 years later Cherry Red have repackaged the first three albums by the Mansfield occult rockers complete with extra tracks in mini replica sleeves and a dinky little illustrated booklet about the band, as a three-CD box set. So how have they stood the passage of so many years?
Pretty well actually, much of the material on Give ‘Em Hell had been honed playing the Midlands pub circuit since they formed in 1975. The album kicks off with a couple of pretty standard cocksure rockers, but the band really hit their stride with the Sabbath-influenced Leaving Nadir where guitarist Montalo and drummer Gra Scoresby hit an Iommi and Ward groove circa Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. The other stand out track is the single “Give ‘Em Hell,” which is another Sabs style belter. Additional material on the reissued CD includes an early demo of “Wake up Screaming”, “The Devil’s Gallop”, a cheeky dig a Sounds editor Geoff Barton to the soundtrack of the vintage radio drama Dick Barton Special Agent and live favourite “Tetelestie” which bears a striking resemblance to Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” in the guitar department.
The band’s second album, Stagefright was released towards the end of 1980, following Witchfynde’s stint as Def Leppard’s support and shows a band grappling with finding their own identity. Despite opening with a bloody great slab of Montalo’s Iommi influenced riffing on the title track, the more confident and melodic sound of the album clearly shows the influence of Leppard as the album drifts into increasingly more American sounding territory. Songs like “Doing the Right Thing” and “In the Stars” and “Moon Magic” have the band sounding bizarrely almost like a Satanic version of Foreigner and then there is the mawkish power ballad “Madeleine”, but the least said about that the better. However, Stagefright’s most curious and perhaps out of place song is “Would Not be seen Dead in Heaven” which with a double tracked twin guitar attack overlaying galloping bass and drums could almost be Thin Lizzy save for the voice of Steve Bridges. Stand out track is the reworked “Wake up Screaming” complete with added blood curdling screaming! Vocalist Bridges left the band shortly after recording wrapped on this album
Bonus tracks on Stagefright date from a 1981 Friday Rock Show session produced by Tony Wilson, which features replacement vocalist Chalky White putting his own spin on “Give ‘Em Hell”, “Moon Magic”, “Getting Heavy” and White’s own composition “Belfast” with its “Freebird” style intro. White was a far more versatile vocalist than Bridges with a much greater range and theatrical sense of drama. Over the next two years, while the band foundered in contractual hell with the Rondelet label refusing to let them go, White transitioned into the much more Gothic and metal sounding Luther Beltz.
In 1983 Rondelet swapped Witchfynde for debt owed to Expulsion Records. Their third album Cloak and Dagger is a much more confident and theatrical affair, taking full advantage of the new vocalist’s ability to hit those high notes in songs like opener “The Devil’s Playground.” The album benefits from a more mature and commercial edge to the song writing and much higher production values than the band’s first two self-produced efforts thanks to Phil Chilton taking over at the mixing desk. Tracks with catchy hooks like “I’d Rather go Wild” and “Living for Memories” show a band confidently finding their own distinct groove and they even cheekily co-opt Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as an intro for “Cry Wolf.” Sadly Expulsion went bust shortly after Cloak and Dagger’s release, consigning the band to indy metal hell and eventually splitting up in 1986. Sure they weren’t Maiden but just maybe had Witchfynde had the interest and promotional power of a major label behind them at the right time then maybe, just maybe they could have achieved bigger things.
The band reformed in 1999 with Montalo, Beltz, Scoresby and Pete Surgey (Bass) adding Tracey Abbott from Serbian hardcore band Overdrive on second guitar in 2014, I must check them out live sometime soon.
Give ‘Em Hell is a brash cocksure slice of new British metal ****
Stagefright is a brave attempt to break new ground, let down by murky self-production ***
Cloak and Dagger is a theatrical high camp occult metal with infectiously catchy tunes ****