In the twenty plus years of their existence, like pretty much any band Church of Misery have had some ups and downs; few can be as dramatic as in 2014 when three of the four members quit the band, leaving founder, and the only man I’ve seen live who should wear shin pads when playing bass Tatsu Mikami to carry on the brand. With such a major change in personnel, not least recruited now from the US rather than Japan where the band originated, a major change in sound and direction could well have been inevitable. Fortunately for fans of the band, your humble scribe included, the trademarks of doom and mass murder have not been left behind, rather they’ve evolved to include the new influences of the incoming members on ‘And Then There Were None’.
‘The Hell Benders’ opens with a snatch of a soundtrack lifted from a slasher movie as a hapless victim is bludgeoned to death, before the music creeps forth, originally with a darkly psychedelic twang, before building up to the bass heavy speaker rumbler of a riff. Repulsion front man Scott Carlson proves a more than excellent new vocalist, contributing not only his own gruff growl, but also taking on lyric writing duties. In that role he does not disappoint, the opener taking as inspiration the incestuous Bender family (stop sniggering at the back!) of killers, one of the dark stories of the American Western frontier that is a million miles from the square jawed heroics of John Ford’s cowboy epics. The action moves across the Atlantic to the Britain of World War II, Acid Bath murderer John Haigh inspiring ‘Make Them Die Slowly’, his hideous crimes set to a grooving head-banger or a beat, new guitarist Dave Szulkin channelling his inner Iommi with a menacing tone that perfectly matches Mikami’s thundering bass. Amazingly for such a dark subject, and notoriously heavy band, the middle section of the track is surprisingly light and subtle, having a retro rocky feel, complete with plenty of the cow bell so beloved of seventies rockers and Saturday Night Live alike.
This dark groove bleeds through into follow up ‘Doctor Death’, a tale of Harold Shipman, a man who may well be Britain’s most prolific ever serial killer, responsible for the poisoning of some two hundred plus of his elderly patients, a figure that may never be truly confirmed. His clinically cold murders are encapsulated in Carlson’s barked delivery, the energy of the track in stark comparison to the methodical and dispassionate nature of the killings. Some may criticise Church Of Misery for their subject matter, but at no point do they advocate or celebrate the real life horrors they illustrate, and to think so would be like claiming Steve McQueen glamorised the trafficking in human misery by making ’12 Years A Slave’; instead, Church of Misery choose to remind the listener of the darker side of life through their chosen art, rather than to hide it and pretend all is light and happy in the world.
A heavy electric blues progression dominates ‘River Demon’ for another story of murder and mayhem, a musical theme carried through into ‘Confessions Of An Embittered Soul’, albeit with a sense of darkness and foreboding even Robert Johnson couldn’t have predicted as he sold his soul to Satan at the crossroads all those years ago. Closing the album is ‘Murderfreak Blues’ an eight minute plus crusher of a track where Tatsu takes the musical lead, his swaggering playing confirming his place as one of Doom’s great bassists, each musician building their playing around his Rickenbacker in fuzzy laid back layer after layer, the throwback sound of the number matching the blues of the title.
Church of Misery have bounded back from a massive change of personnel with what may now be their definitive album to date, combining the murder and mayhem obsessed themes with a playing that has evolved to include elements that are alternately heavier and lighter than their previous releases. Each track could slot easily into a set of their classic numbers and be instant crowd pleasers, whilst at the same time, repeated listening reveals new depths and nuances. With ‘And Then There Were None’ the band triumphantly declare their return from adversity, and surely stake their claim to a spot on a host of top ten album lists for 2016.