You know your band has some serious credibility when Darkthrone founder Fenriz casts his approving gaze upon your ventures. His insistence that Christian Mistress “play heavy metal the old way, the exact way we enjoy it ourselves,” has been bandied about ceaselessly as a measure of the band’s authenticity since the release of its universally praised debut, Agony & Opium, in 2010. And for good reason too. Olympia, Washington’s Christian Mistress plays metal the way it should be played–with a reverential nod to its ancestors, and without a trace of the weak attempts at parody that haunt some other more cynically minded and disingenuous traditional metal bands.
Christian Mistress is the real deal, and the band’s fiery licks are free of any snobbery or passé revivalism. Led by vocalist Christine Davis, and featuring Ryan McClain and Oscar Sparbel in the quintessential twin-lead-guitars role, the band makes a boisterous and utterly enthralling racket on its sophomore release, Possession. Bringing to mind an era when Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang, Girlschool and Diamond Head were rampaging across the UK in all their rugged glory, Possession‘s unaffected roots evoke images of overflowing ashtrays, beer soaked floors, car park brawls and stumbling drunkenly home after the love of your life left you for someone with cooler hair. Possession‘s feisty riffs are infused with the spirit of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but at its core the band is a classic American metal act, never losing touch with its hard-rockin’ heart.
While a large part of the charm of Christian Mistress’ debut came down to its raggedy recording, Possession has been flawlessly produced. However, buffing the scratchier edges hasn’t taken away any of the allure. If anything, it makes it all the more tempting. The polished production still has plenty of analog grittiness, but its clarity allows for a far greater appreciation of the solid work of drummer Reuben Storey and bassist Johnny Wulf, and shines a big old spotlight on McClain and Sparbel’s cavorting riffs and pirouetting solos.
The rough and tumble sonic template Christian Mistress laid out on its debut is still firmly in evidence. Opener “Over & Over” oozes greasy classic metal, with its chugging riffs cut by razor-sharp solos. “Pentagram and Crucifix” begins with a flourish of Sabbath doominess, before an Eddie Van Halen-worthy solo arrives to send things off into virtuoso-rock realms. “Conviction” thunders along with an exuberant Killers-era Maiden momentum. While Christian Mistress isn’t exactly a pioneering voice in the metal wilderness–its work wouldn’t sound out of place anywhere between ’79 and ’84–its tunes never come across as pale reproductions, or drift into the territory of lazy homage. Even the album’s title track, a cover of a little-known Swedish metal outfit, retains enough idiosyncratic Mistress vigor to be markedly distinct.
The intricate acoustic/electric interplay on “There is Nowhere” reveals a subtler, more courteous face of the band, and “Black to Gold” and “Haunted Hunted” barrel along with crunchy riffs and sparkling solos galore. But for all the album’s musical accomplishments, of which there are plenty, it’s Davis’ vocals that comprise the most distinctive aspect of the band’s sound. Husky and strong, her rough-edged timbre is working-class metal personified. Powerful and versatile, Davis’ voice ensures that Christian Mistress has a strong point of difference, and like the Wounded Kings’ Sharie Neyland, and Witch Mountain’s Uta Plotkin, the strength of her voice adds a touch of soulfulness where needed, but comes readily prepared to get raucous and scrappy at any time.
With metal splintering off into seemingly endless and complex sub-genres, the idea of playing traditional metal in a dingy club to 14 people on a drizzling Tuesday night might seem obsolete, or sad. But it is not. Standing on tiny stages shredding insanely and bleeding all over you fretboard is what metal is all about. It’s where metal began, and tapping into a vein of pumped up visceral rock ‘n’ roll and forgetting reality for a while is what dingy clubs and metal itself were made for. Christian Mistress understands that, and Possession reminds you of the intense thrill that comes from listening to unembellished, unencumbered heavy metal.
Possession is a hell of a lot more adept than Christian Mistress’ debut, which is not so surprising as the band have been cured in the fires of touring and writing, and have found a celebrated foothold in the metal world. Filled with wonderfully vociferous songs and deliciously baited rhythmic traps, Possession might have an unmistakable retro aesthetic (you can’t deny those dueling guitars have a circa ’84 feel) but whatever familiarity exists is mitigated by the fact that it’s all delivered in such a dynamic, enthusiastic fashion. Possession pays respect to the past, but it sounds utterly distinctive. And best of all, it’s damn fun. It’s shoddy tape decks, making-out furtively in the basement, far too tight jeans, dirty white sneakers and smoking banana skins in the vague hope you’ll get high–that kind of fun. Possession is buffed-up, scruffy and forthright gutter metal par excellence.