Graded on a Curve:
Black Widow,
Return to the Sabbat

Way back in 1970, when witches still roamed England’s green and pleasant land, the band Black Widow hit on a new approach to the newly conjured genre of Satanic Rock. To wit, they downplayed the rock, and replaced it (for the most part) with folk, jazz, and prog rock elements, thus providing a less pummeling alternative for Satan lovers who found Black Sabbath a bit too ‘eavy, and who were looking for what sounds to the ears of the present like an unholy marriage between Jethro Tull and Spinal Tap.

And yet: I have come not to mock Black Widow (well, I may mock them a little) but to praise them, because somehow they manage to pull off the genre-bending on their 1970 debut Sacrifice, or as it later came to be called, Return to the Sabbat. (Long story made short. Vocalist Kay Garrett played on the original recordings but left before the release of Sacrifice, which the band released without her contributions. Decades later, the band released the original 1969 tapes with Garrett on them, and entitled the LP containing these earlier recordings Return to the Sabbat.)

I say they pulled it off, but there are a couple of unhappy exceptions. Some ungodly bad lounge jazz (why, they’ve even got a vibraphone in there) renders the tune “Seduction” risible, while the band’s chanting of “Come, come, come to the Sabbat/Come to the Sabbat/Satan’s there” over a Native American tattoo and Ian Anderson-school flute makes me think “Come to the Sabbat” is one witchy tune that should be burned at the stake. Wait, I take that back. Its Spinal Tap proclivities provide for far too good a laugh to be set alight on the village green.

But let’s step back for a moment. The original line-up of Black Widow consisted of Garrett; Clive Box on drums and percussion; Bob Bond on bass; Clive Jones (aka Clive Beer-Jones) on flute, saxophone, and clarinet; Kip Trevor on vocals; Jim Gannon on lead guitar, vibraphone, and Spanish guitar; and Gerry “Zoot” Taylor on organ and piano. The band—who were popular enough to play at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970—were chiefly renowned for their live show, during which they mock-sacrificed what I assume was a mock virgin. She may have been a real virgin; I guess I could write the band to ask.

Jones’ excellent saxophone dominates the prog-rockish opener in “In Ancient Days,” and gives the song a Traffic-like feel. He also tosses in some flute, and what results is a long and groovy jam, in which Zoot’s organ also figures. No one would mistake this for Satanic rock, unless they listened to the lyrics, and that’s what makes it so great; Black Widow avoid all the obvious demonic trappings of Satanic rock, and seduce you instead with their Folk Rock Jazz Progressive mishmash. Why, your parents would never suspect they were leading you straight to Hell. They follow “In Ancient Days” with the equally great “Way to Power,” which features more happening sax and lots of very 1970s-sounding vocals, to say nothing of a cool guitar break by Gannon. But it’s Jones’ saxophone that wins me over, that and the ending where Garrett and Trevor engage in some vocal give and take that reminds me of The Jefferson Airplane at their best.

“Conjuration” is a martial-sounding tune; Clive Jones joins the drums on the clarinet, while Trevor intones some portentous demonic brouhaha behind him. “Inside this sacred place I stand/Unused for countless years” he sings, waiting for the female demon he has invoked. I like the riff, and the atmosphere (they somehow brought real wind into the studio!), and while I’m a bit amused by Trevor’s overly dramatic oration, it doesn’t render the song a joke as the vocals on “Come to the Sabbat” do.

As I said earlier, there is no earthly excuse for “Seduction”; if this is what real witches listen I advise you to avoid all Holiday Inn cocktail lounges, because their breeding grounds for the Dark Arts. Hell, that could be Mephistopheles himself sipping the White Russian at the bar. Now, “Attack of the Demon,” different story. The vocals aren’t much to write home about; mock Gregorian chant hoo-hah, they are, but the song rocks, especially when Gannon lets rip on the electric guitar. It’s what this LP needs more of, that guitar, as it cuts through the vocals like a guillotine beheading a witch. (I don’t think guillotines were ever used to behead witches, but cut me a break here, and suspend your belief for just a moment. I’m doing the best I can.)

The long closer “Sacrifice” is dominated by the vocalists and Jones’ flute, and Garrett in particular shines. “Sacrifice, sacrifice/You say you want a sacrifice,” sing Garrett and Trevor, before going into the specifics of beheading chickens and the like. (It goes without saying that these folks aren’t going to win any PETA awards, that’s for sure.) Jones’ flute solo is nice, if you like that sort of thing; I’m more of a saxophone guy myself. But Jones makes like Will Farrell in Anchorman, which is amusing to no end, while the band plays it up jazz style behind him. He’s followed by Taylor, who plays a long organ solo, and I even (inexplicably) like it. In the end, the song swings, and whether you call it rock or jazz or jazz-rock or progressive rock with jazz leanings it doesn’t much matter. Me, I credit Clive Box on drums for keeping everyone in line, because this baby could have really sucked.

What you’re left with here is an album that you can both laugh at and truly like, and that’s a good combination. Sure, their Satanism is a gimmick—by 1971 they’d abandoned most of their demonic trappings to gain a wider audience, but nobody was buying. Me, I’ll file it beside Spinal Tap and The Bonzo Dog Band and listen to it when I need a chuckle. But I’ll also listen to it because it has some bona fide good songs on it, and this is an important point. Give it a listen. You’ll laugh, but you’ll also be impressed; Jones’ saxophone work on “In Ancient Days” alone makes Return to the Sabbat worth hearing. And look at it this way; the band’s folk elements make it more likely that the witches of yore would have preferred Black Widow to Black Sabbath any day. They’d have probably put their fingers in their ears at Black Sabbath Vol. 4 and said, “What is this unholy noise? I renounce thee, Satan, be gone!” And then retreated to the Holiday Inn to hear some good cocktail music.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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