The Lazarus Pit: Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls

Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don’t get nearly enough love; stuff that’s essential listening that you’ve probably never heard of; stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for.  This week’s entry is from 1969, opens with a song called “Black Sabbath,” and features a long-haired guy named Oz Osborne – but it isn’t who you think it is.  Instead, it’s the satanic serenade of Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls (Mercury).
Just to get this out of the way right off the bat: this isn’t metal, so stow your bitching.  As you might be able to tell from that band name-album title combo, these guys (and gal) fall pretty squarely into the “occult rock” sound so popular with the kids these days.  The Chicagoan hippies beat them all to the punch, though, and by a good 40 years!  This is some serious psychedelic goodness, laced with some of the most transgressive Hammer horrific lyrics (and album art) you could get away with during the waning days of the Summer of Love.

The brainchild of singer Jinx Dawson (her real name!), Coven were one of the first, if not the first, bands to use overtly Satanic imagery in their music and on stage.  The cover features schools and upside down crosses, while the gatefold depicts a naked woman who was supposed to be (but wasn’t actually) Dawson offering herself up to His Infernal Majesty.  In fact, they deserve inclusion here if for no other reason than that they were the first documented act to use the devil horns on stage.   Still, they weren’t just a gimmick act.  Dawson knew how to use her witchy warble to spine-chilling effect, and even though an organ was par for the course for that style of music, they had it tuned to maximum creepy.  While they basically sounded like Jefferson Airplane if they wanted somebody to sacrifice instead of somebody to love, they were certainly capable of knocking out some seriously catchy tunes.

Their “Black Sabbath” wasn’t the monolithic triumph of its more famous counterpart, but it’s still pretty awesome, featuring a very Blue Oyster Cult backing track, evil cackling, and some very Halloween-y words.  “Coven in Charing Cross” was genuinely ominous, with its ritualistic chanting and tale of evil wrought upon a small English village.  “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” beat Van Halen to the punch by 20 years, with some Doors-style syncopation.  “Choke, Thirst, Die” is as menacing as its title, while “Wicked Woman” makes its title character sound pretty appealing.  And then they wrap the whole thing up with a 13 minute track that isn’t even a song – it’s a full on Satanic mass, exhorting a new initiate to “kiss the goat” and invoking all sorts of demonic nonsense.  Not really something you can listen to more than once, but it’s a gas.

After getting summarily dropped by Mercury following the Manson murders, Coven released a few more albums and went on to some minor success with the song “One Tin Soldier” from the movie Billy Jack before calling it quits in the mid-70s.  Dawson resurrected the group for an album in 2008, but didn’t really make much of a splash than either.  Still, her band’s influence on groups like The Devil’s Blood and Jess and the Ancient Ones is pretty undeniable, and their satanic shtick was well in advance of Venom.  Every time some black metal band gives props to the devil, they owe a debt to Coven for getting there first.

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