Hellripper – Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags

Hellripper’s James McBain stormed the blackened speed metal scene with his 2021 Peaceville debut, The Affair of the Poisons. We enthused in our review that ‘metal is a rebellious counterculture that will always live outside the mainstream’ and ‘we need artists like this to keep the flame alive.’ However, we also lamented that ‘the pentatonic foundations of the music can be a bit one dimensional at times, and the rock & roll razzmatazz has its limitations as well as charms.’ McBain could have repeated the same formula to keep the critics on his side for his latest LP, but Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags dispenses with the Venom influences, ditches the swagger, and ramps up the black metal aspects of the music. It’s also an upgrade from speed metal to the scything intensity of early thrash metal.

The first thing we must ask is what McBain did over the last eighteen months to accelerate his technical capabilities as a guitarist? You’ll struggle to find a more aggressive or succinct example of thrash metal’s rhythmic supremacy than in album opener, ‘The Nuckelavee’. A verbose tale of the horse-like demon of Scottish folklore, it wastes no time hurling you into a cyclone of sharp buzz riffs and fast-alt picking rotations to the speed of double-timing drums. McBain’s vocals are as hostile as Darkthrone. His changes of tempo are as natural as a wizard’s penchant for smoke and water. Listen to the way he switches to upbeat thrash at the midway point. The difference between this and the last album is like Megadeth’s transition from So Far, So Good… So What? (1988) to Rust in Peace (1990).

Now the songs sound like a black metal group playing thrash metal rather than a thrash band with black metal vocals. One spin of the title-track shows the depth of Hellripper’s evolution as an extreme metal force. Clocking in at over seven minutes, McBain wastes no opportunities to merge clean guitar-picking with screeching pitch bends in the intro before launching his pentatonic thrash offensive. The gallop and purpose of this song will remind you of Bill Steer (Carcass) at his best. Is the chorus not the type of wet dream that power metal bands hope to emulate? You can see yourself booting in the cellar door of the local kirk in honour of the warlocks and witches that lost their lives in the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

There’s no time to prepare for the maelstrom ahead. ‘The Cursed Carrion Crown’ crams as many scale-runs and pull-off notes into its opening succession of riffs as Dave Mustaine in the era of ‘Take No Prisoners’. This is frantic music with a ferocious spew of poetic wordplay and a voyeuristic reimagining of the practitioners of the dark arts in Medieval times. You can hear the glory of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning in the rhythm and lead interplay here.

Most blackened thrash metal subsists on tongue-in-cheek satanism and infantile perversion, but Hellripper avoid these clichés. Beyond the demonic imagery and the Luciferian enthusiasm are well-researched studies of the oral histories passed down through the centuries of Scottish folklore. Tales of demons, wizards, and witches are more deserving of your intellectual curiosity when you know they originated in the forests, highlands, and isles of Scotland. Add in the absurd hostility of black metal in closing track, ‘Mester Stoor Worm’, and you have an intensity that can annihilate the innocuous craters of your face like a life-sucking vortex.

How many times do you hear a black metal record and wish it had more thrash dynamics and less ethereal reverb effects? Here, Hellripper serve you Mayhem and Exodus in the same cauldron. It’s true that sporadic moments of black & roll absurdity appear like family perverts you’d rather forget on ‘Goat Vomit Nightmare’ and the Motörhead bass attack of ‘The Hissing Marshes’. But even these surpass most of the blackened thrash you hear in the contemporary scene.

Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is an album for the heavy metal nostalgists, the black metal transgressors, and the thrash maniacs. More importantly, it’s the album where James McBain can say he reached his true potential.



Release Date: 17/02/2023

Record Label: Peaceville Records

Standout tracks: The Nuckelavee, Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, Mester Stoor Worm

Suggested Further Listening: Estertor – Tales from the Ancient Grave (2021), Bewitcher – Cursed Be Thy Kingdom (2021), Daeva – Through Sheer Will and Black Magic (2022)