Danzig: Circle of Snakes

Danzig: Circle of Snakes (2004)

2004 was a great year for me.  That year started off with a Superbowl victory by my New England Patriots and culminated in one of the happiest moments of my life; the Red Sox victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.  2004 was also the year I began my junior year of college which would be a fun and memorable one and not long after the year’s close the Patriots would capture their third (and despite the team’s best efforts, most recent) Superbowl win.

2004 also saw another release from Danzig; Circle of Snakes.  After releases in 1999 and 2002, Danzig appeared to be back on track in terms of an established release schedule.  There was also a live album during that timeframe and some other re-releases as well as plenty of touring.  And while 1999’s Satan’s Child wasn’t that great, the follow-up I Luciferi showed some promise.  Circle of Snakes was heralded as yet another return to form for Danzig, with pre-release hype claiming Glenn Danzig had gone back to his roots.  This sort of hype had become tired at this point, since both of the previous efforts were described in a similar fashion and yet both were quite different from older works.  I’m not even sure fans ever really wanted Danzig to sound like it did back in 1988, most just didn’t want the band to sound like a NIN knock-off.

Even so, Circle of Snakes was more of a return to form than either of the previous records.  The approach the band took to the record was simplified when compared with prior works.  Basically all of the extraneous effects have been removed from the production and replaced with a pervasive heavy-ness.  Like the prior two records, Circle of Snakes features down-tuned guitars that go lower than the popular drop D technique.  The mastering of the record was either bare-bones or not done at all giving everything a rough quality.  The guitars dominate this release and if their tuning wasn’t heavy enough, the tone used added even more thickness to the sound.

The end result is a sound that works in some parts, but not in others.  Unfortunately, the latter is more common.  The opening instrumental, “Wotan’s Procession,” features that distinct guitar tone right off the bat.  It’s rather ugly, though some would argue it works here and in the following song, “SkinCarver.”  “SkinCarver” is designed to be a destructive album (and show) opener.  It’s fairly straight-forward and one of Glenn’s heaviest compositions.  It’s not among the best openers on a Danzig album, but provides a good preview of what’s to come.  The title track contains a variation on that classic Danzig riff we’ve been hearing since ’88 which adds a groove to the track, in contrast with “SkinCarver.”  The tone of the guitars is more pervasive here though and quite jarring and once everything gets brought in on the chorus Glenn’s vocals get drowned out.  The song is mildly catchy though and not unbearable, if one overlooks the campy-ness of the lyrics.  “1000 Devils Reign” follows and represents the album’s strongest track.  A catchy little drum pattern kicks things off before giving way to a simple three-chord progression and some silky Glenn Danzig croons.  The chorus is classic Danzig, and the whole package comes together extremely well.  The heaviness of the guitars feels a little out-of-place on such a melodic track, but they’re not over-powering.

Unfortunately, the album kind of falls off a cliff shortly after.  “Skull Forest” is a decent semi-ballad with perhaps the best vocal performance on the album.  The end of the song almost drowns out and ruins the vocal performance but it does give the song a bigger sound.  The rest of the album bounces around from forgetful to annoying.  “Hellmask” and “My Darkness” represent some of the worst of the worst from Danzig; just obnoxious, direction-less tracks with no redeeming qualities.  “NetherBound” is starts to make up for things while “Black Angel, White Angel” is a pretty effective hard rock track, but by then it’s too little too late.

The musicianship from the Danzig lineup is pretty solid, if unspectacular.  The whole band was replaced following I Luciferi and the recording lineup this time included Bevan Davies on drums, Jerry Montano on bass, and ex-Prong main-man Tommy Victor on guitar.  Victor had played with the live band on several occasions before so this was a return engagement for him and one that has continued to this day.  The other two would eventually be replaced by Steve Zing and Johnny Kelly (who Danzig really wanted to use for this album but was unavailable).  The mix is where things fall apart for Circle of Snakes as Glenn wanted to achieve a heavy, analog sound.  The successor, Deth Red Sabaoth, would actually be recorded via tape to better achieve this sound, though mixing and mastering would still be an issue.

Circle of Snakes on blue vinyl.

Release wise, Circle of Snakes shines as one the more diverse albums in the Danzig catalog.  It received a standard CD release with a minimalist booklet complete with C-grade porn stars in place of lyrics for some songs.  Glenn Danzig is once again pictured with his black, latex, monster gloves though he decided to keep his shirt on this time.  Circle of Snakes received a true vinyl release, something that really hadn’t occurred since Danzig 4.  Satan’s Child did receive a very limited run as a picture disc, but Circle of Snakes received something close to a full-scale roll-out.  The album was available on blue vinyl and as a picture disc for the first pressing, and then on clear vinyl and another picture disc for the second pressing.  The first pressing totaled 1,400 and the second 880 with both editions evenly pressed.  I believe these were only available in Europe, but I’m not certain.  They’re fairly easy to come by on eBay and copies have worked their way into American second-hand shops.  Needless to say, there’s plenty for the completest collector to go after.

Circle of Snakes brought the band back to its more stripped-down roots, but introduces enough newness to make it stand out from the pack.  Unfortunately, it stands out for all the wrong reasons.  Where the heavy sound of the record works it creates a head-banging, hard rockin’ tune but for many of the songs it becomes oppressive.  Even without it, many of the songs just sound tired and uninspired.  There’s not a whole lot going on from a musical standpoint or a lyrical one.  Given that, it’s not surprising that the band would have a long hiatus between albums with six years lapsing before 2010’s Deth Red Sabaoth.  The break was apparently needed, as Deth Red Sabaoth is a heavy but far superior effort to this one.  Circle of Snakes does have a few good tracks which keeps it from being the band’s worst, but it’s probably the most forgettable.

Top Tracks:

  • 1000 Devils Reign
  • NetherBound
  • Black Angel, White Angel

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