DRUIDESS – Hermits & Mandrakes EP

With an opening track titled ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, this EP from British rock band Druidess makes no secret of its chief influences and interests. However, in a world that can feel overpopulated by doom and stoner metal bands, these guys really stand out. Their occult themed material and huge riffs fill the void left by Witch Charmer and Black Moth, and throughout the material on this debut, Shonagh Brown’s melodic vocals provide a superbly clear counterpoint to the band’s otherwise heavy sound.

‘Witches’ Sabbath’ works a massive riff that sounds like a dirtier relation of the classic ‘Black Sabbath’ at the outset when its slow, monolithic chords power forth, but the track quickly takes on its own identity once Shona starts to sing. Her voice is clean, but there’s something at the heart of the chosen arrangement that gives her delivery a rather spooky and almost detached feel. Obviously, given the style in hand and the amount of fuzz emanating from Daniel Downing’s guitar, it really works, and by the end of the second verse, the band find themselves entrenched in a pure doom sound that’s timeless. It’s heavy without being sludgy; oppressive without feeling leaden. The heaviness is obviously important, but this number really comes into its own when the band stretches out a little more. Flourishes of carny-esque keys really add to an unsettling atmosphere, and a quiet interlude allowing the vocal to explore a few very haunting melodies gives the track a very natural balance. With a few slightly bluesy lead guitars rearing up during the coda, it also gives the feeling that Druidess can handle a great melody as well as an impressive heaviness.

More of that bluesy tone is evident throughout the main guitar riff of ‘Mandragora’, which means the love for the legendary Tony Iommi couldn’t be much clearer. Using a fat tone to set a great groove in place, the band delivers a great heaviness that blends the core of ‘Volume 4’ era material with the more modern buzz of bands like Volt Ritual. This really showcases drummer Sam Armstrong’s solid, very rhythmic style and, latterly, a banshee howl of a lead guitar cutting through a wall of sound, but in the main, your ears will be drawn to Shona, who fills the number with a vocal that’s absolutely stellar. Her surprisingly soulful tones are peppered with a bright trill, and this gives the performance a real energy throughout. The track centres around a classic stoner doom sound, ensuring Druidess work riffs you’ve heard many times before, but stylistically, they still sound like a band very much on point. In short, in terms of style, you won’t find much better.

For those hoping for something a bit heavier, the lengthy ‘Knightingales’ cranks Shona’s grubby sounding bass and the distortion, taking the band deeper into a world of doom, and the vocal – at least in part – takes on a deeper tone to suit. Taking the band closer to the weighty sounds of later Witch Mountain works, the track shows how effortlessly they handle a pure doom riff, but as with the opener, it’s the extra keyboard flourishes that keep the first half of the number interesting, with a circus-like glee. When adding a chugging middle eight, the arrangement works hard not to rest too heavily on easy doom laurels and succeeds, and by the time the lead guitar cuts through with a very melodic counterpoint to the vocal, Druidess actually sound as if they’ve resurrected a superb piece of goth-doom from thirty years earlier, such is their near timeless sound. Taking a similar path through the intro of ‘The Forest Witches’ Daughter’, potential fans get to experience much more of Daniel’s overdriven guitar sound, before the band change gear and launch into a confident swagger that blends the groove-laden aspects of Sabbath’s ‘After Forever’ et al with an Orange Goblin-esque intensity. Although this might seem like stoner metal by numbers in places, the clean vocal continues to sound amazing and twin lead guitar sound used intermittently throughout adds some great depth to a familiar sound.

Having demonstrated an affinity for the slow and moody, but also showing off a genuine swagger, the EP’s highlight ‘The Hermit of Druid’s Temple’ kicks off with a massive stoner groove where the dual guitars weave a fat sound that instantly impresses. The effect is like hearing ‘Children of The Grave’ intercut with an almost glam-ish feel, and it’s absolutely superb. Even when the chorus heavies things up just a little more, the strong melodic core holds firm, and the blend of fuzzy sounding heaviness and clear vocal cry is more than reminiscent of peak Black Moth. It’s the sound of a melodic doom band about to go places…and in a very big way.

In terms of Sabbath influenced riffs and doomy atmospheres, you’ll find several hundred bands that really deliver, but this release is among the best. The EP format allows the listener enough time to explore some very dark soundscapes without anything feeling too repetitive, and the band use the time wisely to show off a broad range of doom-laden moods. With a blend of heaviness, atmospherics and user friendly hooks, ‘Hermits & Mandrakes’ delivers a short blast of classic sounding melodic doom metal that has a timeless appeal, and is a release that sets Druidess in great stead, despite a whole world of competition.

May 2024