When I found myself originally pointed in the direction of Crystal Viper’s debut by Russ Smith I never really looked back. Apart from the fact they look perfect as a heavy metal band (y’know, those band pictures where you can’t decide if it’s a band or some frightening mercenary gang from the latest fantasy film… I mean drummer Golem looks like he drums on boulders using warhammers…) their sound is just straight from the motherlode; Maiden, Priest, NWOBHM with just a dash of in-your-face thrash energy.

It’s been four long and worrying years though since these Polish heavy metal heroes put out Possession. Four years in which the future of the band was in serious doubt as front woman, songwriter, vocalist, rhythm guitarist, band leader and all around fierce Valkyrie Marta Gabriel had to have a serious operation on her sinus and face. Well back the band is, so how is this return from the fires of adversity album; burned out or forged in the flames?

Oh, boy, never doubt the resilience or the sheer talent of these Poles. The band is just blazing. Blazing. If Possession was perhaps a touch disappointingly a little more power metal than normal, Queen Of The Witches is right back to the riff crazy grit and melody of Crimen Excepta. Imagine Wolf with more dirt under their fingernails fronted by a cross between Doro, Veronica Freeman and Jody Turner. Exciting, huh? Yeah, it bloody well is!

All doubts are deliberately and emphatically put to rest by the opening track; an air raid siren, dog deafening scream from Ms Gabriel begins ‘Return Of The Witch’ and a drum heavy riff just avalanches in. Catchy as all Hell with an earthworm chorus it also unashamedly showcases every aspect of Marta Gabriel’s truly remarkable voice. She is back. From pure, glass shattering high notes to lower deeper notes and the ability to put a real edge on her voice when the expression needs it. Just breathtaking. ‘I Fear No Evil’ just takes that, cranks the speed and energy even higher and gallops off into glory on a brilliant riff and an electric atmosphere. Tight as a perfectly engineered nut, exploding with enthusiasm and aggression as only a proper band can. Maidenesque breakdowns, thumping drums and bass from Golem and new bassist Blaze J. Grygiel, superb lead flight from Andy Wave, amazing vocals; this just burns. Bright, brilliant stuff.

There is variation here too. ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ is a slower glowing ember of an number, maybe a little prime Hammerfall around the edges, a nod to Dio but anchored by the Crystal Viper core sound. We get a couple of ballads too: ‘Trapped Behind’ is the softest, actually a lovely example of vocal control to a piano melody. ‘We Will Last Forever’ begins the same but builds, ironically, to a power melody that reminds me of my teenage NWOBHM heroes Saracen. Ironic as Mr Steve Bettney himself guests on this, his still hugely impressive voice stunningly complimentary, a perfect duet partner.

We also get guitar solo guest spots from Mantas in the above duet and Ross The Boss on the crowd pleasing stomp of ‘Do Or Die’. There’s also a cover version at the end, a passionate rendition of Grim Reaper’s ‘See You In Hell’, which is a good a moment as any to wish Steve Grimmett all the best for his recovery.

There is genuinely not a duff track on this album and with a real energetic and sympathetic production once again from Bart Gabriel (Cirith Ungol, Mythra, Sacred Steel and the little thing of being Marta’s hubby). Oh yeah and a cracking album cover from Andreas Marschall. Yeah, this is the whole package.

It’s beautiful to have Marta Gabriel back, it’s brilliant to have Crystal Viper the band back and they are back with the album of their career so far. This should be a white phosphorus grenade dropped on the heavy metal festival circuit it burns so hard. Now if only they’d play somewhere I can get to.

When traditional Heavy Metal is this bright, loud, passionate and just so damned catchy the years fall away from all of us. This is my lifelong love in musical form, the energy in my soul and the grin on my face and I think it’s the same for them. Just superb.

In it for life \m/.

(9/10 Gizmo)