Editor’s Note: Hey, remember when I kicked off Dystopian Halloween Party as an excuse to post more frequently to the site? Well, life has intervened, and I’ve been too busy to write for the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, however, I had a vaguely Halloween-themed review of the 2006 debut by alt-metal supergroup Witch tucked away for just such an occasion. It’s got all the ingredients for a truly terrifying Throwback Thursday: hackneyed rock-crit patois; dated references to the mid-oughts zeitgeist (Pitchfork, ahahahaha); a demure, decidedly early-twenties reluctance by the author to admit that he unironically likes heavy metal. In short, unlike many of the other posts I’ve taken out of the vault so far, this isn’t one I’m particularly proud of. But what better activity for Halloween than looking back at something one did years ago with a mixture of horror and disgust? – Z.H.
It’s all but unavoidable: the press for Witch’s self-titled debut will be dominated by references to J Mascis, the alt-rock living legend who lends both his musical talents and an impressive head of hair to the band. And in a way, that isn’t such a bad thing. Most listeners of catholic tastes won’t find it too hard to see parallels between Witch’s monolithic hard rawk and the more plodding aspects of Mascis’ “other” gig, Dinosaur Jr. (“Sludgefeast,” anyone?). Indeed, the jet-fueled riffage and shrieking solos that lurch out of the speaker during opening track “Seer” wouldn’t sound out of place at one of Dinosaur’s reunion shows…except for the fact that Mascis isn’t playing them. Instead, he’s behind the drums for this band, and that little detail makes it hardly fair to keep calling Witch a “J Mascis Solo Project.”
So how do we label Witch? Some have argued for “doom metal”, though I’m not big on subgenres, and the use of a loaded word like “metal” runs the risk of driving listeners away with conjured images of corny faux-occultism, flights of virtuosic self-indulgence, and other such cheap preteen thrills. Not that Witch doesn’t exude all of the above–this is easily the guiltiest pleasure to make it onto Pitchfork’s newswire since the Darkness, an entirely unselfconscious, unironic celebration of everything brutish and juvenile about heavy rock (except maybe the sex). It’s just that this particular mix of plodding, leaden sludgefeasts and dime-store mysticism has a hell of a lot more in common with proto-metalheads like Black Sabbath than, say, Immortal.
And man, does it rock. Asa Irons and Kyle Thomas, the real men behind Witch’s fretwork, wield their axes like they really are deadly weapons; their über-heavy tones are about the last thing you’d expect from a couple of guys who also play with “avant-folk” group Feathers and contributed to Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow last year. Thomas also gets credit for a voice that can go from Bolanic effeminacy to he-banshee wail at the flick of a switch. Meanwhile, Mascis and bass player Dave Sweetapple hold down the bottom end with rock-solid, pummeling rhythm-section work.
The end result of all this combined power is largely what you choose to make of it. Witch the album doesn’t boast “highlights” so much as a series of subtle variations on one, supremely executed mood. All of the songs adhere to essentially the same formula: start slow and steady on the main riffs, speed up to double-time for the solos, then bring the tempo back down for an even heavier grind on the outro. What works and what doesn’t is largely a matter of preference. Want more slow, less fast? Try the especially Sabbath-redolent “Hand of Glory.” Prefer the rapid-fire solos? “Rip Van Winkle“‘s your man. Wanna hear Thomas let loose with a remarkably Ozzy-esque cackle? That’d be “Black Saint.” And it’s just about as simple as that.
But seriously, who needs hooks when we can headbang? Witch clearly sets out to be an entertaining genre project first and foremost–one, ideally, that will rock our asses off in the process–and as such, the band does not disappoint. The rock is hard, the lyrics are ridiculous, and the cover art resembles either a black-light poster or the title screen for a Commodore 64 role-playing game, depending on which generation of stoner culture you hail from. What more do you need, a final song that begins with finger-picked acoustic guitar a la “Stairway to Heaven” before building to a thrashing, shuddering, sign of the beast-flashing climax? Well, guess what–you’ve got that too. Fact is, if there’s even a shred of heaviosity in your system, then Witch will please you like nothing else. Go ahead, crank it…and if you don’t immediately feel the urge to grow a scraggly moustache and invest in a sherpa-lined jean jacket, try checking your pulse.
Buy Witch, or open a digital portal to the demonic plane and stream it on Spotify: