The relationship between 70’s hard rock and classic prog is a niche from which greats such as Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, and the Blue Öyster Cult brought the world enduring classics. Witchwood’s modern take on similar themes employs a guitar-centric writing style that relies heavily on riffing and features its instrumentation to profound effect: most notably Hammond and flute pairing, a sound that hearkens back to classic prog and also gives the band a unique voice in the modern scene. In fact, Witchwood were voted as “best emerging band” in 2015 by Rock Hard Italy readers, a scene particularly rife with bands reaching back into classic prog influences for their source material.
A reincarnation of sorts of the Italian rock band Buttered Bacon Biscuits, Witchwood entered the scene in 2014 with four former BBB members, featuring Ricky Dal Pane (vox, guitars, mandolin, percussion), Luca Celotti (bass), Stefano Olivi (Hammond, piano, synth, Moog), Samuele Tesori (flute, harmonica), Andrea Palli (drums), and newcomer Antonino Stella on lead guitar. Since that time, the band have released two studio albums under the Witchwood moniker. The latter of these two, Handful of Stars, celebrated its first birthday on 18 November, and – as the band’s sophomore release – it represents a distillation of their writing. The album draws its title from the final track of the band’s debut record, Litanies from the Woods, and features a reinvented edition of that song to conclude the new record. In fact, Handful of Stars contains a number of pieces based on ideas composed and developed during the Litanies recording sessions: several tracks were dis-included from the debut due to the album’s length (nearly 80 minutes) and repurposed for inclusion on the sophomore record.
Handful of Stars’ introductory track, “Presentation: Under the Willow,” showcases Tesori’s flute and the pair of guitars at the band’s disposal. “Like a Giant in a Cage,” the first full-length song on the record, is constructed on a central pentatonic guitar lick and reserves plenty of break-down passages for guitar, organ, and flute solos. This style of hard-rock riffing creates the structure for “A Grave is the River” as well: Dal Pane and Stella synchronize guitars for strong unison and harmony, doubled and supported by Celotti’s bass work and Olivi’s grinding Hammond, altogether accented by flute.
The acoustic ballad, “Mother,” takes a step away from the hard rock feel of the opening tracks, blending mandolin with acoustic guitar and echoing the pastoral folk ambience of 60‘s Canterbury and Italian prog. The rich outro fades from harmonized guitar parts to listless mellotron. The album’s final track is its namesake. The Handful of Stars version of this piece is the definitive incarnation: the epic-length piece opens with growling Hammond and Moog lead, an extended intro that fades into the central melodic line adopted by bass and guitars, which will carry throughout the composition. Across the scope of the epic, Hammond, lead guitars, and flute trade leads and drive the song forward.
Handful of Stars also features two tribute recordings: Blue Öyster Cult’s “Flaming Telepaths” and “Rainbow Demon” by Uriah Heep. Each is a quality homage to the original artist, with enough of Witchwood’s own character to make them unique interpretations of the original tunes. Listening to the new renditions side-by-side with the originals clearly reveals the impact that these two bands have had on the members of Witchwood, influencing their style and their method for writing music.
When all is said and done, Witchwood’s instrumentation and musicianship are impeccable, but the reason I can only score this record as a 7 is due to its lack of compositional variety. The 65-second introduction alone tips the band’s collective hand: if the piece had an organ overlay and a sampling of Dal Pane’s vocals, the song would truly be a microcosm of Handful of Star’s material. Together, the opening three tracks summarize everything you are about to hear for the next 45 minutes: Witchwood repeatedly fall into the same patterns of repetitive guitar riffs and rhythmic patterns that recur across multiple tunes, ultimately leaving me with the perspective that a handful of stars – a lot in theory – is more accurately a glass-half-empty perspective: a mere handful when there are entire galaxies in this genre to be seized.
That said, however, the pieces represented on this record have a strong collective voice and demonstrate the band’s ability to cohere, to jam, and to listen to the other voices in the mix. For that reason, Witchwood are likely a fantastic band to see live, even if their studio material can feel repetitive. This is a band with talent and chops, and hopefully they will expand their writing horizons for their next release.