Search The Line of Best Fit
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On the Rise
Witch Fever

19 October 2022, 10:00
Words by Owen Morawitz

Original Photography by Niz Bezzina

Manchester's Witch Fever are leaning on lived experience to redefine religious ties and the inherent power of women.

The expression “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company” has been repeated so often that it’s become something of a colloquial truism.

Yet, in talking with Amy Walpole, the affably genteel lead vocalist and lyricist for Manchester quartet Witch Fever, one quickly realises that such topics are simply unavoidable. “I was thinking about that stupid American song [the Miss United States pageant anthem] with the line ‘She’s beauty, she’s grace,’ and how women – young girls especially – are expected to be this certain way,” she says from the comfort of her bedroom over Zoom on a leisurely Tuesday afternoon. Our conversation centres on the song “Beauty and Grace,” the latest single taken from the band’s formidable debut album, Congregation. “That track is about the way that women were expected to behave in the church but also the whole world in general. The way that patriarchal oppression tells women that they need to be quiet and pretty and submissive; to behave a certain way and to let men be the dominant ones in all areas of life.”

For Walpole, politics and religion aren’t merely topics to steer away from for the sake of etiquette. They’re vital components of her art, intimately related through the nexus of control and power and ripe for interrogation. “As a woman, I’m not always this crazy bossy, boisterous, angry person, but I’m not totally submissive either. I like being pretty, and I like making myself feel pretty. I enjoy those parts of my femininity,” she says with enthusiasm. “So, it’s not about totally eradicating those parts, it’s about finding power in the things that are opposite to them, which are typically considered masculine. [“Beauty and Grace”] is an expression of anger at having to repress certain things that you feel in order to be more feminine, protesting against them while also embracing femininity. Having both and enjoying both.”

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It only takes one listen to Congregation to realise that Witch Fever have crafted a deeply personal record informed by Walpole’s lived experience. Growing up as a member of the Charismatic Church – a form of Christianity that shares beliefs and practices with Pentecostalism – her childhood and burgeoning adolescence included teachings that placed reverence in ‘divine gifts’ and baptism by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the word “charisma” has origins in the Greek root kharis, meaning “grace” or “favour” – aspects of blind faith that Witch Fever’s music actively seeks to undermine through the evocation of shame, guilt, and corruption. “The way that I write my lyrics is that I take words from the Bible, or words that I’ve grown up hearing over and over again,” Walpole explains. “I’ve taken that [language] and sort of flipped it on its head and used it in a way that suits me. Instead of that language giving the church power or giving ‘the man’ power, [it’s] feeding me. It lets me take the power back.”

Across Congregation, Witch Fever wield this power with an almost heretical relish. The hypnotic thrall of “I Saw You Dancing” gives way to a monstrous grunge groove on the album’s title track, as the group’s “doom punk” sound freely shifts and mutates with the demands of Walpole’s impassioned lyricism. On “Blessed Be Thy,” the album’s opening track and lead single, the crunchy drone of Alisha Yarwood’s guitar steadily builds tension alongside Annabelle Joyce’s marching snare roll and Alex Thompson’s subterranean bass rumble. Walpole’s scornful vocals cut through the mix like a knife as she interpolates truth and divinity through the subversion of a classical hymn, all before launching into a harrowing shriek that matches the wall-of-noise ferocity of her bandmates.

“We didn’t really start it with any idea of what it was going to be. We didn’t write to a brief or anything like that. We just knew that we needed it to have more space because, in the past, everything that we’ve released has been of the same sort of temperament,” Walpole says of the process behind their debut album. With their reputation for incendiary live performances already well-established, the quartet acknowledged their collective desire to take creative risks, allowing their sessions with producer Sam Grant (Pigs x7) to gravitate towards previously unexplored dynamics and textures. “We wanted slower songs like “Congregation” and “Slow Burn”; we wanted to have that space and isolation, which we’ve not done before,” she adds. “It was more about just letting the songs do what they want to do and letting the songs breathe if they needed to.”

While the instrumental range of Congregation reflects the songwriting strengths of Witch Fever’s creative vision, the narrative throughline of the album is stark and unwavering. It’s a record that functions as a raw emotional bloodletting for Walpole, each track suffused with her anger, her despair, her rage, her frustration, and – perhaps most noticeably – her vulnerability. “As women or queer people, we’re often told to suppress our anger when there’s so much to be angry about. So, it was more of an active thought process for me in dealing with my trauma,” she explains. “I do tend to write quite selfishly, and it’s more of a cathartic process for me rather than going in with a specific agenda. There are tracks like ‘Sour’ and others that are less introspective, and more about fighting back against depression, [where] using anger as a tool is important.”

It’s a testament then to Walpole and her bandmates that Congregation doesn’t play like a political screed or rad-fem manifesto. Those themes are certainly present, loud and proud on the record, readily available if one is willing to listen attentively and do the work. From Walpole’s perspective, her heavy use of Biblical symbolism, allegory and metaphor is wholly intentional. “I did a master’s degree in Gothic literature. My love of fiction and horror fiction plays such a strong part in the way that I write,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to spell everything out and be really on the nose. I enjoy reading stuff that I have to unpack. I think that’s really exciting. I love reading lyrics that you can unpack and figure things out. It’s part of the fun.”

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Returning to Congregation’s overarching concept of mass worship as a form of liturgy, our conversation turns to music as a form of divination. “When I’m on stage, for the most part, I just feel total… clarity is the right word. I don’t get this divine feeling. I’m very conscious of my power in a band, being on a stage, and having fans. I always try and keep that in check,” Walpole explains. “But every time I’m playing, it just disappears. I feel like that sounds so cliche, but it’s true. I think that’s what has kept me doing it for so many years. It just feels like it’s what I’m meant to be doing.”

Is it possible to find hints of spirituality in Witch Fever’s fierce sermons? Is Walpole a willing participant in her role as a punk rock preacher? “I think the word ‘congregation’ has, especially for me, quite a negative connotation and dark undertone to it. But it’s also like – and this sounds really cliché – when we play gigs to, sometimes, huge groups of people. That is technically its own congregation as well,” she says. “We want everyone that enjoys our music and coming to see us play to find a sense of community in that; to find their own part that they can relate to, feel powerful with, and just have a good time. I grew up being part of a congregation that I did not want to be in, and that was not good for me or my family. And now, we’ve found our own kind of thing.”

Congregation is out 21 October 2022 via Sony’s Music For Nations

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