For many all-time-great rock bands in the ascendant, the fourth album is often the point where youthful years of febrile creativity and progressive momentum culminate in a masterwork for the ages, setting the seal on an early signature sound while opening it up to future possibilities. From enchanting 2016 debut Prelude, through 2018’s assured II: Sojourn, to 2020’s wizardly III: Pentecost, each Wytch Hazel album has embodied that old-fashioned notion of unstoppable progress, and the glittering treasure chest that is IV: Sacrament proves eminently worthy of rising to the toughest challenge. Not just the Lancashire quartet’s most classically beautiful production, but their strongest yet front-to-back collection of affecting hooks and ageless melodies.
A very tough challenge it was, too; records this good don’t get banged out willy-nilly, and Jimmy Page, Ian Anderson and Freddie Mercury didn’t have to fit recordings in between day jobs and school runs. “This album has been a trial,” sighs founding singer/guitarist Colin Hendra with his head in his hands, his voice full of cold. “It’s been a tough few years for everyone, which plays into it, but it was exhausting. Working full time, trying to be a dad and husband, running the band, writing the albums – and being a complete control freak about every aspect of the process…” Colin breaks off and chuckles at his Eeyorish approach to album promotion. “But there’s no gain without pain!”
The triumphs and tragedies are written all over IV: Sacrament. Working closely again with regular producer Ed Turner, Colin’s God-given gift for diamond songwriting has been enhanced to majestic proportions with Ed’s Roy Thomas Baker doozy of a production job, his expressive sonic trickery sublimely underscoring the varied musical moods. “Me and Ed like the same albums, so we’re singing from the same hymn sheet every time,” enthuses Colin. “We love the Sabbath production, obviously Martin Birch, and the Queen albums; we want it to sound like Wytch Hazel, which it kind of always does, but we want it to also have that classic sort of quality.”
Colin describes his working relationship with Ed as “perfectionism amplified. We’re a good match but bad at the same time! It takes ages to get an album done, but if it’s going to be done we want to do it right.” The new studio looked promising: a converted Baptist chapel in rural Wales, chock full of vintage gear. However, with personal reasons forcing drummer Jack Spencer to step back from the band (subsequently departing in September 2022), Colin took on the additional laborious task of completing all the drums himself. As well as all the vocals, lyrics, lead guitar and drums to fret over, there were so many mysteriously blown cabs, amps and vocal cords you might suspect the Devil was trying to stop anyone else getting the best tunes. “I don’t know why we have such bad luck,” groans Colin. “Engineers were scratching their heads, like ‘how have you done this?!’”
Now Sacrament is finally offered – and sounds as fantastic as it does after all the blood, toil, tears and sweat – you might think Colin could finally bask in the glory of this resounding achievement, but he’s not even fully comfortable taking credit for his own songs. “When I listen back there are multiple times when I’m like, I don’t even know how this happened,” he ponders. “I know I wrote it, but I don’t feel complete ownership over them. It has that sense in which… there’s something else, and I’m a part of it.” On previous albums, specific influences were readily discernible, and although Angel Of Light tips a nod to Angel Witch and Endless Battle nails the sweet spot between Steeleye Span and Judas Priest, Sacrament’s ten songs zero in on a sound and style that’s all their own. With assertive, explosive earworms like The Fire’s Control, Strong Heart and A Thousand Years and the profound emotive magnetism of Time And Doubt, Deliver Us and Digging Deeper, Wytch Hazel revel in their distinctive Wytch Hazelness. Colin’s Christian faith continues to inform much of his lyrical outlook, but there’s a disarming openness and emotional force that might have you reaching for the Kleenex.
“It’s some of the most honest songwriting I’ve ever done,” Colin reflects, “and they come from a darker place, I think. I’m getting older, that comes through in some lyrics: ‘see my body breaking’, ‘I’m digging deeper’, ‘time’s running out…’ I struggle to see the positive a lot of the time, so the songs end up being negative, the subject matter coming from constant striving.” Among all the doomsayer tendencies, gorgeous sylvan acoustic strum Future Is Gold proclaims a radiant optimism, but it’s more hope in the eternal than an expectation of earthly improvement. “It’s rooted in scripture,” Colin explains, referencing the Book of Haggai: ‘the glories of this latter house will be greater than the former’. “I struggle to believe that half the time, with the state of the world, but who knows what level that is? Will the afterlife be better, when all suffering has ended, or is what we see as better not actually better? If things are always going comfortably, it isn’t always the best thing for us. An element of suffering is necessary.”
Suffering has clearly been necessary for the creation of the fourth Wytch Hazel album; let’s hope for Colin’s sake the next one requires a bit less. “I’ve blown my own mind a bit,” he concludes. “And even after all this painstaking work, I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what we could be doing musically. I wish I could have a month to work on one song, and go on a tangent a bit. I will in the future, it’s going in the right direction. I’ll get to the stage when I can commit more time and do an odyssey or something!”