Day 13 of the #mayvinylchanllenge asks for an album evoking the supernatural and the spooky. I’m sure I could have dug through a ton of metal albums that would conceivably fit the bill, but I wanted something that really evoked the spirit of the ask, and there’s no better album in my collection than the “mighty” Coven, whose 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls desperately tries to be sinister and mysterious, but can’t help but be slightly silly, very charming, and a lot of fun to boot.
If people know Coven for anything, it’s for their use of Satanic imagery and the occult, as well as their myriad and weird connections to Black Sabbath (the opening song is called “Black Sabbath” and their bass player is credited as “Oz Osborne” for starters). Less known is the music, which modulates from classic psychedelic rock and roll to…well, classic psychedelic rock and roll but with weird spoken passages about witches and devil worship.
It’s not that Witchcraft… is a terrible record by any means. But it’s definitely not the groundbreaking work of proto-metal record labels would like you to believe. There’s fun to be had in the overt occult lyrics of opening track “Black Sabbath” as well as the hard panned guitar effects. Likewise “White Witch of Rosehall” which for my money is a superior track, owing to some great percussion work by drummer Steve Ross and the primary draw of the band, the beautiful Jinx Dawson who can definitely hold a tune. When Coven stick to this formula, a fun rock and roll with a lyrical edge they can really bring it together. Unfortunately when they start to really apply their schtick it doesn’t work nearly as well. “Coven in Charing Cross” starts off well, with Dawson singing of a secret cult meeting. But then it’s interrupted by a spoken word chant that completely dispels any momentum the song has. In 1969 this probably had a much greater effect on folks, coming as it did in the midst of the Mason insanity, but today it doesn’t play nearly as well.
It’s a bit of a pity, because listening to the recent reissue from Real Gone Records musically there’s a lot to dig. Van Halen may have had a laugh with their For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album, but here’s Coven beating them to the punch and all the way back in the 60s to boot. And while “Pact With Lucifer” feels too rooted to the free love of the 60s, there’s a wicked sense of fun to “Choke, Thirst, Die” I can’t help but groove along to. Guitarist Jim Dolinger had a hand in writing most of the songs, and his solo work on this track has a nice feel to it. Same with “Wicked Woman” which might be the best track on all of Witchcraft… featuring a nice driving baseline and Dawson giving a raw, shredded vocal performance. “Dignitaries of Hell” should work better than it does, but despite some loud and overpowering organ work, the pop inflection of the melodies and harmonies drags the song down a bit. Same with “Portrait” which is fine, but really does nothing to stand out, especially considering some of the stronger material throughout the album.
If Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls ended there we might be okay. More than okay, maybe. But sadly Coven save their real bone rattler for last: “Satanic Mass” is a 13-minute recreation what I guess Coven deemed to be a a true satanic ritual. It’s an absolute slog, adding nothing to the record besides some silly goofs to laugh at. Maybe it worked live? I don’t know – the band obviously had enough chops to get some better material on the record.
So, Coven…silly, charming, not at all scary but maybe a little spooky all the same.