Review Summary: Death Penalty is a truly amazing album by a band often overlooked as a gimmick, and though it might sound a bit too much like its influences this doesn't stop the album from being truly superb.
Back in 1982, before Cathedral signed a major record deal and long before Type O Negative went platinum, doom metal was not a widely used term, in fact it wasn’t even a term at all. In 1982 a little band out of Stourbridge, England called Witchfinder General released their debut album, Death Penalty, an album musically evoking Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath, and some times even Black Sabbath. Riding the coattails of the NWOBHM, though musically almost completely unrelated to it, Witchfinder General found that more attention was being paid to their controversial album covers (featuring naked models) than to their music and quickly disbanded. However posthumously they have been regarded as pioneers of the doom metal genre, and their debut, Death Penalty, as one of the most influential albums in the heavy metal underground.
From the beginning the album explodes into a flurry of ass kicking riffs, one after the other, delivered with absolutely no mercy to the listener. In fact the riffs are the most characteristic part of the whole album, blues inspired pentatonic licks that just keep on coming, each better than the last throughout the whole album and never let up. Invisible Hate, the first track is a perfect representation of the six songs to follow, the fill happy drum patterns, varied riff landscapes and witch related lyrics (yes pretty much the whole album is dedicated to witches) delivered in a high pitched croon of sorts that may bring to mind a sort of Ozzy Dickinson. And that is really the feel of the whole album, what if Sabbath had come along 10 years later? And though the band’s unforgiving show of their influences might lead to the songs sounding almost unoriginal at times it is only so ocassionally, sounding for the most part like (I’m going to get blasted to hell for this one) an improved version of Black Sabbath. They are everything the legendary band were but to a larger, grander scale, while omitting the annoying or dull parts (The Warning anyone?).
Black Sabbath aside, Death Penalty continues on with its rampant roar and concise songs all throughout, being incredibly consistent and constantly interesting. Songs such as the title track and No Stayer travel fluidly through their different sections, from heavy riffage, to melodic crooning, through bluesy soloing and catchy choruses. No song is boring, the record is never stagnant, it just kicks ass all throughout, melodic, heavy, and bluesy it’s everything you could want from heavy metal. At times Death Penalty almost sounds like a summary of all that hard rock had accomplished in the 70’s packed together very nice and tidy into seven songs. Much like a greatest hits compilation it emits all of the mistakes and magnifies the successes to a huge scale. Everything in the album, from the melodic fade out in the title track to the continuous breaks in No Stayer, through the sing-a-long choruses in Witchfinder General and Burning a Sinner, had been done before, yet never this well.
From the very beginning Witchfinder General was intended to be pretty much a Sabbath tribute, they even took cues from their heroes and named themselves after a horror movie. However they wrote such amazing songs that even if they were molded pretty much note by note from the Black Sabbath template they did such a good job in eliminating the unnecessary and leaving only the best to shine by itself that they beat their heroes at their own game and helped mold a genre in the process.