‘The Only Good Wizard is a Dead Wizard' EP by MassasaugaReview
I have tended, while praising Massasauga singles, to warn readers of a delicate disposition of the power & impact of listening to them. The band it would seem appreciate how strong the medicine they dispense can be & have, to date, dispensed it in clinically prudent limited doses.
Nevertheless, it was inevitable that eventually they'd throw caution to the winds & give people the chance to play (and cope with) several songs all at once and on 14th June, with the coming of the EP I mentioned in my previous review, ‘The Only Good Wizard is a Dead Wizard', that moment has arrived. And given the title alone, it's one I've been awaiting. Though the cover art deserves a mention too....
This band with such a high power to membership ratio (it's still basically just Conrad Lummus on guitar and vocals & Adam Stewart on drums plus one guest you'll learn of later) is also renowned for their love of filmic & other dramatic narratives and use of it to inspire songs, so sooner or later they'd need to channel this through an artefact with multiple acts: a full play or film rather than a short story, however neatly & perfectly these have been formed.
If Arthur Miller had been a fuzz rock guitarist rather than a playwright, then he might have processed his perspective on witch trials in a manner closer to ‘The Only Good Wizard is a Dead Wizard' rather than "The Crucible". But he didn't & so Massasauga get the chance to put that right. Sadly they don't get to marry Marilyn Monroe.
And that's what the EP concerns: historic witch trials and "…the power of mass hysteria, mob mentality, ritual sacrifice and ancient magic. A series of events transpiring to create a divide between man and mage".
Which brings me to the crux of the first part of the review: how to describe the EP? Well, it might be a "concept EP" if such a thing exists. It certainly fits whatever criteria you might imagine in such a thing.
However, given the Jacobean aspect of the work, it might be better to seek for some analogy closer to the dramatic form of those days: a tragedy in five acts plus an interlude. I think I'd prefer that if you don't mind as the classic form of Jacobean drama with so much violence & gore is so well suited to the band's own sensibilities. It really fits in well as their take on seventeenth century narratives to fit alongside all their previous channelling of twentieth century ones: taking the likes of John Webster as models as they have Steven Spielberg.
To that end, like a classic concept album, the constituent parts are arguably best heard as a suite and in sequence to get the most meaning out of them. Yes they have considerable merit & impact taken in isolation: "Don't Be Scared of the Dark", which was the subject of my previous review has already appeared by itself as a single, but even that must now be re-evaluated as it appears as the fourth song on the EP. Taken as a whole, a tale is told & each song represents but a single chapter whose full meaning is only revealed when your hear its neighbours.
The opening act is "Witching Hour" and the band's synopsis reveals it to depict "Cultists gather(ing) on the hill to bring an offering to their gods. As the human sacrifice squirms on the altar, begging for mercy, the blade hears not. The witching hour approaches, so the ritual begins." Perhaps, given their occult interests, a slight Led Zeppelin feel makes sense here, though there is absolutely no impression given of the narrator getting involved: Conrad's vocals are mixed to keep him at as safe a distance as possible: I imagine he's adopting the role of the sorcerer as observer.
Next comes the title track: "upon hearing what the cultists have done, the townsfolk gather in the square. Pitchforks and flaming torches are raised to the sky as they cry out for blood. The Witchfinder General rallies them to action, no wizard is safe. For in the morning, the hunt begins..." This is a perkier affair altogether and Conrad's voice comes in from the cold (I think he's the Witchfinder General this time) to express the horrifying lyrics gleefully: I think this is one of the numerous times when the band stick their tongues at least a little way into their cheeks to defuse the potential nastiness of the story. It's not full on "Rocky Horror" by any means, but I think those who wrote it have at least seen the show. The band promise their "nastiest" songs to date on the EP and while indeed all the subjects of all their songs are far from tea time with the vicar fare, they always slip in sufficient humour to allow you to sleep at night after hearing them.
Then follows an interlude subtitled "No Peace in the Village": "as night falls upon the village, it is the calm before the storm. However the people get no sleep". Another sharp change of mood & sound (it's worth noting at this point that the EP illustrates the breadth of their musical scope & interests: Massasauga are no one trick pony), you need their gloss to know what the track is about as the lyrics give no help, since there are none. It's a stark, gothic blues based instrumental which sets an effective insomniac soundscape
This is then followed in turn by the aforementioned "Don't Be Scared of the Dark": "as dawn breaks and the people gather, their fear manifests and their judgement becomes clouded. It is the unknown which frightens them most."
Though much of my original review on the track, taking it purely on its isolated merits holds: I'm not sure at all that I could have gleaned any of its actual meaning within the overall story: which starkly illustrates the overwhelming importance of artistic context.
The fifth act is "Dungeon Crawler" and features guest vocals by Sam Shiers of Ambrius : "the townsfolk take to the streets and spill blood. Guilty or innocent no longer matters, they take their heads all the same. As the king is slain, an ancient evil is awakened. The spirit of the damned, the Dungeon Crawler". This set of ideas are conveyed to us by a tune which might be approximated were Steppenwolf trying to rewrite "Beck's Bolero" and in which we are presented with yet another vocal style: again processed but with that slightly OTT sense of delight in mayhem factored in: think maybe what you might get if Brian Blessed performed guest vocals with Queens of the Stone Age….
The status of the final track is a bit ambiguous: described by the band as a "bonus track" with its narrative content being "from his tower the high sorcerer watches on, pondering his crystal ball. Just like the ouroborus, mankind is destined to destroy itself.", "The Sorcerer's Theme" fits into the main story as a sort of epilogue and as such I suppose can be both taken as part of the whole or seen as semi-detached (as indeed the character in it is from the main action) and hence "bonus" rather than an essential part of the narrative. This one is by far the most different musically from the others (it seems to be played on keyboards for starters) and by Massasauga standards, startlingly minimalistic (it sounded a bit like Thomas Leer to me). You also require the above explanation given that it's another instrumental.
Returning to the discussion around context, I wonder what people only hearing Massasauga live get out of the songs? Probably a great deal in terms of excitement & musical uplift given the qualities of the band. However I seriously doubt that the very considerable efforts they put into the lyrics could ever be picked up by only hearing the songs in concert: they contain far too many subtleties and details for any of us (myself included) to pick up in that sort of environment. So I urge fans to not just catch them live but play them at home (your neighbours will thank you) & derive further understanding of what they create.
If the bulk of Massasauga songs exist at two levels, one more immediately accessible than the other, then ‘The Only Good Wizard is a Dead Wizard' is prime evidence that their vision is even broader & complex than that. Great as the band have always sounded, it's elevating to record their continued progression.
The only question is "can the human body & psyche actually take six Massasauga tracks in quick succession?" It's a challenge, but one worth the taking.