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Thursday, January 22, 2009

CD Review: Ritual - Widow and Valley of the Kings reissues

Ritual - Widow and Valley of the Kings reissues
2008 Shadow Kingdom Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Submitted for your approval, the strange case of England's Ritual...

One thing about the heavy metal revival, a lot of tremendously obscure bands are being excavated by loving admirers. While some are to be considered the eye (or ear) of the beholder, others are knockout gems or at least cornerstone acts who sadly never got their day and due.

Ritual is perhaps metal's most underachieved band in terms of album output per time spent as a unit. Having begun officially in 1973 and running quietly alongside Black Sabbath and Pentagram (both of whom bear shades in Ritual's doom-laden and cultish work), Ritual took a full decade to release their debut album Widow, right at the height of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Led by guitarist and vocalist Gypsy Re Bethe and featuring mainstay bassist Phil Mason, Ritual hedged their songs in London's rock and metal underground at the same time future legends such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead were coming up ever-so-slowly during the mid-seventies. Ritual issued the single "Burning" towards the beginning of their career, receiving spins on Alan Freeman's Friday Night Rock Show as well as The Tommy Vance Show before releasing their first proper record, Widow in 1983. Still, Ritual was confined to the stage and a series of cassette demos before getting their chance at a full-length recording in the form of Widow.

Listening to Widow in modern times, one of the most striking things is its primitive and archaic sound, particularly the random chop 'n slop drumming of Rex Duval. Still, reflections of Sabbath, Pentagram, Witchfinder General and slight hints of Hawkwind can be found in songs such as "Journey," "Rebecca" and "Burning." Gothic and polychrestic in a dark, sensual sense, Widow compensates its lack of production prowess and occasional disjointedness with textural and outlandish guitar lines from Gypsy Re Bethe.

Seamed together with various storm gust effects, Widow's cold physicality manifests on the slinky seduction of "Temptation" and Re Bethe's captivating chorus "You've changed my life, I looked into your eyes, you've changed my life, a feeling so right..."

Honestly, Re Bethe's summoning vocals are one aspect unto themselves, but his guitar playing is Widow's centerpiece, be it the elegant doom-meets-power metal instrumental "Forever" or his haunted solos splicing the cumbersome and quick-tempoed crunkfest "Never for Evil." Both understated and forceful on the opening licks of "Morning Star," Re Bethe peels off his own primeval riff salute to Tony Iommi as the song grinds on.

Widow's fate was left in the hands of an unmerciful press of the day, as well as a printing mishap in which the band's logo was left off of the album cover, forcing Ritual to promote copies of their album which audiences took them to be known as Widow. As metal history relates, there have been past and present incarnations of Widow, thus you can appreciate the frustration Ritual faced in the launch of their well-in-the-making debut, an undeserved stigma marking the band in future books and journals with a sleighted credit of Widow the album to the wrong band.

Though it would be another full decade before Ritual released their second and to-date last album Valley of the Kings (though releasing random singles here and there during the mid-eighties, including "Never Look Back," which appears on Kings) the band kept the faith by continuing to play gigs in underground clubs and maintaining a small tribe of followers.

Despite wrangling up redos of "Come to the Ritual," "Burning" and "Morning Star" from Widow on Valley of the Kings, Ritual by-and-large produced a superior-sounding effort in 1993. Much of the same affinities for Pentagram and Sabbath remain, yet a decided air of DiAnno-era Iron Maiden lurks all about Valley of the Kings ("Lady Night" and "Possessed," for example) though still relayed at a predominantly creeping, mid-tempo pace.

Another distinction to Valley of the Kings is Gypsy Re Bethe's affinity to tug and twang his guitar notes with bleeding sorrow on every song to the point of replication. Was he in a genuine blue period as of this album? Certainly there's a wrenching emotional encapsulation to Re Bethe's playing on Valley of the Kings, even when he whips out a complex solo on the pulsing "Kiss of the Nile." Nevertheless, you're going to have to acclimate yourself to hearing repeated high-note slides and prolonged squeals to the point you think Re Bethe is weeping flush down his tearful frets.

Despite this, songs such as "Naisha," "Gypsy" and "Kiss of the Nile" are given lofty grace because of Re Bethe's string wailing, while he serves up a gorgeous acoustic number "The Enchanted Princess," not to mention an ariose intro to "Lady Night." He and Phil Mason, along with the late John Gaster dress up "Come to the Ritual" and "Burning" with inflated pizazz, the latter already having become a staple song in the band's repertoire at this point in their career.

Baffling as that career may have been, Ritual's minute place in heavy metal is now revealed as nearly-silent practitioners of doom and precursory ambient metal. The problems facing Ritual, aside from printing fiascos and reviewer rail jobs, was their music was ill-timed when both Widow and Valley of the Kings were originally released.

Widow was a bitter pill to be spat out by a loud 'n proud rawk parish sermoned to by Priest, Maiden, Saxon, Def Leppard, Tygers of Pan Tang and their subsequent American followers, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Dio, Ratt and Twisted Sister. Compared to all of that upbeat idealism, Widow was a huge downer, much as Saint Vitus and Bathory were upon initial contact to the party hearty metal crowd. By contrast, Valley of the Kings had a shot to ride on Cathedral's widely-accepted doom and sludge revival, yet heavy metal's popularity as a whole had queefed in America while Europe, Scandinavia, South America and Japan were hopping aboard the power metal and death metal trains. In other words, no matter how long they fought in trenches, Ritual was destined for obscurity.

Of course, now is a time for resurrection and perhaps newer audiences will give these guys a proper shot. Yes, Widow is going to take a couple of listens to uncork its deeply-wrought charms, but Valley of the Kings is mostly an instant-grab. Widow is raw, blustery and guttural, while Valley of the Kings is more polished and full of sentient sensitivity. All told, the dynamics between the two makes the long and weird story of Ritual well worth telling.

Rating: ****

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