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In the last years there has been an incredible influx of female-fronted psychedelic rock/stoner/doom metal bands. It seems every label is searching far and wide to find its own Jess and The AncientsSeremoniaHigh Priest Of Saturn or Jex Thoth. The difference is that Jex Thoth, the band centered around vocalist/keyboardist Jessica Bowen, was at least a forerunner of this particular subgenre going all the way back to 2007 when they were active as Totem. As always with these kind of bands Black Sabbath is an obvious influence as far as their heavier material is concerned. In the band’s more gentle moments influences from grunge and classic rock (think Fleetwood Mac, for example) are hard not to notice.

500x500The band derived its name from the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Bowen and now ex-member Jackson James Thoth. Marital difficulties aside, a continually fluxuating line-up hasn’t hurt Jex Thoth or creative mastermind Jessica Bowen at all. Through out all these trials and tribulations they have managed to maintain a steady output, now consisting of two full lengths (this being the second) and a handful of EPs. Jessica or Jex rather is the type of frontwoman seen far too less in this genre. Combining elements of wicca, pagan nature-worship, hippy and stoner rock frontwoman in one package that is breathtaking and awe-inspiring, she remains relatable yet there’s something uniquely charming about her. If I’m being really honest with myself, there are superficial similarities with “Rabbits On the Run” era Vanessa Carlton as far as visual representation and clothing style is concerned. But that’s really in the eye of the beholder and up to debate when it really comes down to it. It is worth noting.

Bowen’s wonderful voice deserves a paragraph all its own. She isn’t especially operatic or over-the-top, but within her range and register she’s one of the best singers on the scene today. Her vocals combine the timbres and techniques of people like Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), Diana Krall, Heather Nova and some passages also recall Swedish country/punk singer Sunniva Bondesson of Baskery. She will never rasp like Cadaveria (ex-Opera IX), but there are a few commonalities in the application of different styles. That is to say, Bowen doesn’t allow herself to get pigeonholed to a certain category or technique and her vocal lines grow naturally from the music she is singing to. The thing about Jessica Bowen is she never lets her voice dictate where the music should go, and she isn’t afraid to not sing at all. The point is that both music and voice work in unison, and neither takes prominence over another.

Atmosphere is another strong suit of this record, which is something sadly absent from many contemporary metal acts, regardless of genre. Take for example ‘Into A Sleep’, the fourth track of this album, which opens up with a gentle melody, some light keyboard playing and the barest minimum of guitar work. It simultaneously channels Pink Floyd’s later laidback prog wanderings, Tori Amos and Björk’s ‘Venus As A Boy’ without the Eastern melodies. The song is really too short and an entire EP or album of this type tracks sound like a very appealing concept. Subsequent instrumental track ‘And the River Ran Dry’ takes the same idea but fleshes it out in a more guitar-and-drum oriented framework. The organ melodies in the track ‘Keep the Weeds’ are both tripped out and haunting at the same time. It’s wonderfully simplistic but incredibly effective. The cello in closing track ‘Psyar’ is wonderfully sublime in conveying a morose atmosphere. When it comes right to it this track sounds like a folk song for the recently deceased. If it wasn’t for the overarching doom aura and the lack of country instruments, this could have been culled from a Baskery record, including the harmonies on the vocals. As an additional bonus the closing and very emotionally phrased guest solo/lead is the ideal closer to a record that ticks all the right boxes across a variety of genres yet never drowns in incoherence.

Black Sabbath is the obvious influence for the majority of material present, and it is understandable that for clarity’s sake this band labeled as doom metal. Is this doom metal then? To a reasonable extent, at least, it is. The music is played at a steady slow pace that is reminiscent of Thorr’s Hammer, Burning Witch and Khanate’s faster cuts. But there’s more to this band than just that, as a lot of the times when this band is playing gently this could just be snail-paced pop/rock. The uptempo segments have a general stoner rock feel, and Bowen’s voice could be applied in any musical context, in and outside of the metal genre. Which is a compliment, because a lot of times metal bands tend to go to ridiculous lengths to prove just how metal and extreme they are, or can be.

This band has nothing of that mentality, at all, which is incredibly refreshing.

In the end it’s up to the listener to decide what he/she finds the most important. Whether a release needs to be brutal, technical or whatever else adjective is hot this week. Speaking from personal experience, I value songwriting and feeling above anything else mentioned before. Jex Thoth doesn’t really qualify purely as metal as there’s plenty of influences from more mainstream genres and even singer-songwriter type artists. This is what sets Jex Thoth apart from so many other underground artists in the metal scene, Bowen is a singer-songwriter at heart – that her backing band happens to provide Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal for musical framework is secondary at best and not even important at worst. This is something for people who like music from the heart that is directly aimed to touch your soul. Come and be mesmerized by this enchanting witch.

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In the last five or so years there have been a significant influx of bands aping the one of metal’s earliest known practitioners and its true pillar: Black Sabbath. The practice isn’t new in the slightest, ever since Black Sabbath reared its ugly head all the way back in the 1970s, there have been bands aping them ever since. In more recent years this has mostly been perpetrated by bands from Scandinavia and America. I guess that after two decades of perfecting thrash - and death metal, and in more recent times finally mastering Norse black metal; American bands looked farther into the past for inspiration. Which is a good thing, because being aware of one’s past often leads to better things, musically, in the future. For whatever reason most of these bands end up being classified as occult rock, or doom metal. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Probably because marketing people love coming up with exciting ways to sell something old in a shiny, new package, trying to pass it off as something new. At least that sounds like the most reasonable explanation. Not that that changes anything. It’s an age-old industry practice.

Another aspect which is hugely magnified in most of the corporate metal press is the fact that these bands are all fronted by females, as if it is some revolutionary, egalitarian progression set out to positively change gender politics within the metal scene at large. Now, I don’t know about you – but women have been involved in extreme metal for three decades now. At least as far back as the 1980s there have been women in bands, women fronting their own bands and sometimes even entire female-only extreme metal bands doing their thing alongside their male compatriots. In the early 2000s much was ado about German metal journalist Angela Gossow fronting then up-and-coming Swedish melodic death metal act Arch Enemy. Again, this was nothing novel at that point, even though people will love to tell you otherwise – there were far better death metal bands doing this years and years before the arrival of ms. Gossow. There is absolutely a problem with rampant sexism within the industry, and the fandom, for that matter – the presence of these bands isn’t going to change any of that. That change has to come from within the industry and the fandom itself, not anywhere else.

318141_347538938643482_1093297661_nThe most popular examples of bands aping the great Black Sabbath include Blood Ceremony, the recently defunct The Devil’s Blood, the intensely enchanting Jex Thoth, Jess and the Ancients, Seremonia, etc. Like their Finnish neighbours of Seremonia, High Priest Of Saturn is another Scandinavian outfit, and just like all those aforementioned bands they too are fronted by an attractive female. In case of High Priest Of Saturn this is a stunning brunette by the name of Merethe Heggset. The epicenter of this Black Sabbath revival movement seems to lie in Finland with the Svart Records label imprint, which has made a veritable cotton industry out of this very thing. I’m not going to knock on anybody for capitalizing on a trend, the only thing that worries me is that once this trend wanes – will the label be able to survive the changing taste of its target audience? Will it have diversified its roster well enough to stay afloat and to offer viable alternatives within the metallic spectrum when demand for this type product dries out? Svart Records already offered the metal world the amazing vintage proto-doom metal of Pentagram affiliated acts Bedemon and In-Graved, the band around guitarist Victor Griffin. Here’s hoping they diversify their roster as much as they can, for their own sake.

This brings us at long last to High Priest Of Saturn, and their self-titled debut record. With four long tracks, and about a playing time little over 40 minutes – this sounds exactly like you think it does. Imagine the slower, more tripped out moments of Black Sabbath’s debut record, and instead of Ozzy’s harmonica imagine a Hammond organ. The Hammond organ is exactly the thing that makes this record so great, because next to the proto-metal of Black Sabbath this gives the band an aura of 1970s psychedelic rockers The Doors, with their great organist: the late Ray Manzarek. Not to say that High Priest is psychedelic, far from it. The organs here are mostly used for atmospheric purposes, and although they feature prominently they are purely supplemental – never do they become the lead instrument. Other than handling the organs, guitars and singing, Heggset also plays the bass guitar, which is popping, plucking and throbbing prominently in the mix and is responsible for much of High Priest’s inherent heaviness.  Heggset’s vocals aren’t terribly special, or engaging – she’s no Jessica Bowen, for one – but they serve their purpose. I personally would have preferred a lighter vocal style, say something like Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine, Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering) or even Heidi Parviainen (ex-Amberian Dawn), for example. With a lighter vocal style the primal riffing and heaviness of High Priest Of Saturn would have been emphasized better. Heggset is far from bad, actually. She just doesn’t make you stand up and take notice. She’s a little too average and median sounding for that. She is more varied in her singing, though. At least she doesn’t do any of that warbling semi-talking, nasal singing that Finnish goddess Noora Federley from Seremonia does.

So, High Priest Of Saturn isn’t doing something new – they have a female singer - that is new, right? Well, no. In Scandinavia this thing has been done at least as early as the 90s with female fronted doom/dark metal bands as Left Hand Solution, Madder Mortem and in Norway with the short-lived Thorr’s Hammer. No matter how much of a spin the PR department from Svart Records might pull on you, High Priest is just a newer interpretation of an established, classic sound that was perfected at least two decades prior. Not that this takes anything away from the enjoyment or functionality of the band’s sound. It’s just that there isn’t anything novel about this band, and that isn’t necessary in the first place. I’d rather have they be honest and forthcoming about it.

For one High Priest Of Saturn isn’t quite as obvious about its main influence as Seremonia. They still wear their influences on their sleeves, but it is all done rather tastefully. Take, for example, the entire intro section to ‘Protean Towers’ with its prominent organs, and the slow churning riffing. The usage of melody and the whole build-up towards the eventual vocals are fantastic in its simplicity. A notable mention must also go to the excellent lead – and solo work through out this track. The thick bass guitar, somewhat reminiscent of Cliff Burton’s concrete tone on “Master Of Puppets”, also gets a moment to shine. Then there’s the crawling bass guitar intro riff to ‘Crawling King Snake’ that is not only excellent, but is integral to the track itself. ‘Kraken Mare’ ends with an organ melody that is eerily similar to those awful chord strokes from Daniel White in the entirely inept “Oasis Of the Zombies” horror movie from the late Jésus Franco. ‘On Maya Insula’ has a grand finale that works in a similar fashion as the intro to ‘Protean Towers’. It’s a slow building, highly atmospheric segment that rides of a colossal guitar riff, and the moody Hammond organ. It’s deceptively simple, but hugely effective. A good deal of the time the band is perfectly content to just play, and the vocals occasionally appear like an afterthought. This is in no way a bad decision. The atmosphere, which is one of the primary’s strengths of High Priest, is very reminiscent of the “Are You Experienced?” record by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. One valid criticism that can be leveled at this self-titled is that it is self-indulgent, and the lack of dynamics (or different tempos) can make this occasionally dreary to sit through.

This self-titled debut is half new, half old in terms of compositions. ‘Protean Towers’ and ‘Crawling King Snake’ both appeared on the band’s independently released demo recording from 2011. ‘Kraken Mare’ and ‘On Maya Insula’ are two new tracks written specifically for this release. All songs were written exclusively by Merethe Heggset, which brings out the obvious fact that High Priest Of Saturn isn’t very much of a traditional band. No, this is Heggset’s solo project more than anything else. More power to her if she wants to wear all these different hats. It only begs the question why she won’t let any of the other members have any input in the songwriting. She writes interesting and compelling enough songs on her own, but additional creative input from the other members might actually lead to even more poignant material. Then there’s also the fact that she’s running this show solo, and that there’s a good chance of her running out of fumes and burning-out in the long run. We don’t want that to happen, do we? She has proven to be a capable songwriter and frontwoman, she’s the captain of this vessel, that much is clear. In the long run High Priest Of Saturn will benefit from drawing influence from its other members as well. Hopefully Heggset will allow this to happen.

One’s level of enjoyment from this type band depends heavily on your preference of proto-doom and stoner rock. Approaching this as a Black Sabbath tribute (which it, more or less, is) then it isn’t very original, or novel, despite the female vocals. As an early doom metal record it is too non-committal, and average at best. Given that this band is part of an ongoing trend, they aren’t too shabby at what they do – but how much does that say exactly? Not much. I guess the best I can say about High Priest Of Saturn is that they don’t hide who and what they are most inspired by, and that is admirable. However in a growing mass of bands peddling exactly this sort of thing, they don’t really set themselves apart from the pack in any shape or form. It is good for what it is, but does functionality equal formidability? Of course not! Right now this is a fun little record part of a retro-movement that is riding high waves of overall popularity, but High Priest Of Saturn will need to set itself apart in the next few years if they wish to survive beyond the existence of current popular tastes. Anyway, I look forward to hearing more from them, as this record at least hints at something more original and, well, more committed to original ideas of their own. For the basis of its own sound/style, this is a good starting point.

Not the most amazing thing, obviously – but well above average.