One of the UK’s most exciting new bands, Witch Fever are riding a wave of buzz with their debut album, ‘Congregation’.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Nic Bezzina.
Witch Fever’s debut EP is a ferocious slab of fiery angst, pummelling riffs and tightly-wound chemistry. Released last year, ‘Reincarnate’ sums up the Manchester four-piece’s five-year journey to become one of the most exciting metal bands in the country. Twelve months later and their debut album ‘Congregation’ lays the foundations for what comes next.
The EP was the first time the band could afford to get into a studio and record five songs at once, thanks to a deal with Sony’s Music For Nations. “That really helped us find ourselves,” says guitarist Alisha Yarwood. “That’s when we crossed the line between being an amateur band to becoming more of a professional band,” adds bassist Alex Thompson. “Some of the songs are so old, though. It feels like it has very little relevance to us now.”
“I play in standard tuning across the record. It’s so vile,” laughs Alisha. “After that EP, we could move on and start doing things that sounded different,” she continues.
More progressive, more defiant, more colourful and more powerful in every way, the thirteen tracks of ‘Congregation’ see the band shake off the Doom Punk tag without abandoning their roots. “We went into the album with more confidence and with more of an idea of what we wanted to do, things we wanted to push. I don’t think we were confident in exactly what was going to come out,” says Alex. They knew they wanted to do something different, but, according to Alisha, “we just didn’t know what that difference would be until it was done.”
“It was the first time we’ve deliberately written a body of work,” says Alex, before describing their previous EP as “a bunch of singles just thrown together. Before we were always such like a live band that writing kind of took a backseat.” It’s meant that everything up to this point has felt “very thrashy” as the band set about trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy. “With the album, we wanted to incorporate more space and allow more dynamics. We were able to explore what Witch Fever was, what defined Witch Fever’s sound.”
“There are songs like ‘Slow Burn’ and the title track that I definitely couldn’t have seen us doing a couple of years ago,” says Alisha. “It’s got elements of both, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a Doom Punk record. With this album, and with whatever we put out in the future, we definitely just want to break the boundaries of genre and just do a mad mix of whatever the fuck we’re feeling.”
Despite the weight of a debut body of work, the band didn’t have a whole lot of time to get the album together – the joys of fitting in music around full-time jobs. The timeline was reduced even more when producer Sam Grant’s PigsPigsPigsPigsPigsPigsPigs got a last-minute, post-pandemic tour, meaning Witch Fever had to record a month earlier than originally planned. They finished writing the album in the studio and only had a week and a half to get everything done. “There was definitely a time pressure on us,” says Alex. “It was a really good test for us, though,” and made sure the band couldn’t overthink anything. The end result is “a really good dive into our essence.”
Witch Fever finished recording their album almost a year ago, and have been patiently sitting on it ever since. There have been moments where the band have wished they’d changed a tone here, a vocal line there, especially after playing the tracks live, but they remain unwavering in their confidence. “I know it’s good,” says Alex. They’re right, too. ‘Reincarnate’ touches on a variety of different tones and moods without ever feeling incomplete.
Each member of the group has their own specific influences. Vocalist Amy Walpole, for example, loves Pianos Become The Teeth (“at the start of their career, their vocals were so heavy, so painful and so emotional, and each album since has got less heavy but no less brilliant”). Alisha, on the other hand, has “literally never listened to them.” Across ‘Reincarnate’ there are nods to Black Sabbath, Warpaint, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Show Me The Body, Rage Against The Machine, Self-Esteem and Deftones, but Witch Fever always sound like themselves.
“We’re all very intuitive with each other,” Alex continues. Rather than taking specific influences from other bands, “we write music based on everyone else’s reactions. The more experimental stuff comes from us bouncing off each other, trying to pump each other up. We influence each other a lot.”
“I really appreciate an artist who doesn’t just do album after album of the same thing,” adds Amy before asking if those that do play it safe “are not bored of doing that, cos I’m definitely a bit bored of that. It’s exciting that there are no rules.”
According to various press releases, ‘Congregation’ largely explores Amy’s experiences growing up in the Charismatic Church, a branch of Christianity that her parents joined when they were younger, and she was born into. She left when she was 16, the final straw being the lack of support for her mental health, while her parents followed suit two years later.
Across the record, themes of belief, abuse of power and control come up time and time again. “It’s very obvious what the record’s about,” says Amy. “You’re dumb to think I would choose this,” she sings on the rumbling ‘Blessed Be Thy’ while frantic closing track ’12’ features the lines “Don’t need to be touched for it to make an impression. I never got an apology. I carry it with me, the things that he said. Thought it was my fault, I was only a kid.”
“Some of the songs were very much written all about me,” Amy explains. ‘Congregation’ and ’12’, those are selfish ones. But then other songs like ‘Sour’ were more for other people. It’s less personal and more just like an expression of anger and wanting to fight back against oppression.
“I found the whole thing very cathartic,” she continues. “I feel like I’ve drawn like a line underneath a lot of what I was writing about on this album. It wasn’t on purpose,” she explains. “It just happened to be that almost every song had the same theme, and I only realised when we brought them all together – I can’t believe it became my whole personality trait.”
“Emotionally, it’s been good to just get it all out… but we’ve been writing the second album, and I’ve been sat in the practice room thinking, what the fuck do I write about now?”
She goes on to say that despite the personal nature of ‘Reincarnate’, performing the songs live has been fine, but in interviews, she’s had to learn how to say no “because really, I don’t owe anybody shit. Some publications have explicitly told me they need more details about what I went through in order for us to get coverage. I’ve been asked specifically who the person I’m singing about in ’12’ is – what, do you want the police report? It’s such a bizarre question.” She goes on to state that she will probably discuss things in more detail, but when the time’s right and on her own terms.
“It’s so unnecessarily invasive,” continues Alex. “You’ve owned that thing and used it as a source of power. As soon as people expect you to discuss it in a way you’re not in control of, they’re doing the exact opposite of everything that you’re setting out to do. It is important, and there’s a lot of weight to it, but it’s not trauma porn for someone to read and be like, ‘Oh, bless her’. It doesn’t define you as a person or us as a band.”
‘Reincarnate’ also pulls inspiration from horror in both its visuals and the music. “It’s such a potent genre, and there’s such a great opportunity within it to explore oppression, pain and trauma,” says Amy. “It’s also problematic, though. It’s fun to take a genre like horror that has oppressed women, queer people and people of colour for decades and use it as took to speak about the things we want to talk about.”
Despite the weight of what Witch Fever are singing about on ‘Reincarnate’, the album is a colourful journey of excitement. “I want people to be inspired by it,” says Alisha.” And feel empowered, not necessarily by the music but by what we’re doing as a band.”
“I want people to be excited as well. I want them to listen to it and have fun,” adds Amy. “It is an angry record, but we are enjoying ourselves. I wasn’t in the studio crying over everything that I’m writing about. Like, it’s fun. It was and is a positive thing.”
Some of the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, while others take the religious phrases that were once used as a form of control and twists them. “It’s like we’re flipping the power. I keep saying power, but we’re owning what’s happened and having fun with it at the same time,” explains Alex. “We want to encourage people to own their own stuff and have fun with it too.”
That doesn’t mean the band shy away from anger, though. As Alex explains, “there’s power in how you think and feel. And if people want to tell you differently, fuck them. Emotions aren’t a bad thing.”
“We want to prove that anger can be used as a positive tool, and it can be a positive emotion to express,” Amy continues. “Especially when you’ve been told your whole life that you shouldn’t express it.”
Alisha grew up feeling pissed off but not knowing why. Anytime she expressed that angst, she was told not to because it wasn’t ladylike. “It’s really useful now to be able to tap into that anger in a way that’s actually going to do something, rather than just sitting there and it making me feel like shit.”
A few weeks ago, Witch Fever put up a story on Instagram criticising the monarchy in the UK for their history of protecting alleged paedophiles, colonising nations and “along with the government, the church and the police, consistently holding oppressive structures in place to varying degrees that are racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist for generations.”
Alex ended up having a row with her mum about it, with her saying how the band were going to lose followers for speaking out. “Who fucking cares? It’s how we all feel. There’s this constant downplaying of opinion or expression where you have to keep everything to yourself in order to keep up appearances. I fucking hate that. You should be able to feel how you feel and express how you feel.”
They spoke about similar issues while on tour with Cancer Bats, and at one show, some clever dick shouted, “music, not politics”.
“We’re a punk band; you’re at a punk gig. If you’re privileged enough that you can separate the two, then you more than anybody should be listening to what other people have to say,” is what the band said at the time and what Alex reiterates today. “It really pisses me off because there are so many levels of oppression that I have to deal with every day. It’s so exhausting, and it’s so much worse for other people as well,” Amy adds.
“It doesn’t matter who you go out on tour with; there’s always going to be dickheads,” says Alisha. “Just by the nature of being women and non-binary people, we anger people when we’re not even trying to. There’s a certain level of respect that those older moshers give to men that they don’t extend to us. We can’t control that,” adds Alex. So where does the energy come from to keep going and to keep fighting?
“Honestly, things like that are just going to fuel us to do it more. We got catcalled on stage the other week, and that’s exactly the reason why we always talk about misogyny in the industry. You have to press on and demand the respect you deserve,” says Alex before explaining that “as a band, we’re all empowered by each other.”
Witch Fever’s debut comes at a time when a band like Crawlers are making waves with their emo anthems about depression and mental illness, Canada’s Spiritbox are touring arenas with Ghost while Poppy is out with The Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction. Closer to home, Nova Twins have been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.
“There’s definitely a new wave of heavy bands,” says Alex. At a recent awards show, they saw first-hand how all the legendary categories were full of white men being nominated “while all the new awards were much more varied. I do think the tides are turning. There’s still the antiquated idea of metal, though, but it feels like an entirely separate scene. We exist in a community of like-minded musicians. We know we have lots of peers that feel the same way as us, even if the music they make sounds different. That community is a nice thing to have.”
Heavy metal as a genre isn’t just getting more diverse either; it’s also going through a resurgence with more and more kids resonating with bands like Witch Fever. “Heavy music unites so many people, and it brings so many people together,” starts Amy, before Alex explains how “it’s impossible not to be influenced by music in some way. It’s so direct, whether that’s purely the feeling it expresses or the political agenda it talks about. It’s a really direct way of sharing things with a community of people.”
“That’s so important, especially nowadays when there are so many horrible things going on in the world,” adds Alisha. “When music and politics mix, it breeds a community of people who like the music, but also agree with what you’re saying. It’s just a super important and powerful thing to get involved with.”
Across ‘Reincarnate’ and throughout our hour-long interview, Witch Fever are excited about what comes next. “People keep telling us how mad everything that’s happening with the band is, but we’re just in it,” says Alex. “I definitely feel this buzz around us, though. I feel like we’ve got something special between us.”
“I’m excited to see where we go,” adds Alisha. “There’s just so much potential. I’m excited for the gigs and tours we’re going to be able to do, and I’m feeling really positive about the future of us right now.”
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Witch Fever’s debut album ‘Congregation’ is out 21st October.