I hate to say it, but the most interesting thing about The Witches might be group leader Troy Gregory’s history compared to his current band’s music. Gregory should be one of those famous footnotes that makes music encyclopedias continually cross-reference. If you don’t know his name, that’s because he’s one of those behind-the-scenes types who just happens to have had his finger in a lot of pies.
Troy Gregory replaced Jason Newstead as bassist for Flotsam and Jetsam when Newstead left that band to join Metallica. Then he left Flotsam and Jetsam to hook up with Prong for a while. That gig was short-lived as well, and he went on to work at various times with a multitude of groups that included Killing Joke and Swans. It would be only the strangest of ironies if Gregory were to join up with Metallica to replace the recently retired Jason Newstead.
But if the direction of his latest, and most permanent, endeavor, The Witches, is any indication, then Gregory probably wouldn’t be interested. With such a hard-rock pedigree behind him, The Witches come as sort of a surprise. Infused with blues-rock chords, psychedelic-collage sound structuring, crashing percussion, and hollow, echoing vocals, The Witches sound like every period of the Rolling Stones up to the mid-‘80s smashed together into one claustrophobic sound, and then distilled into the most pure Detroit garage elements. It is chaotic music, to be sure, and maybe that comes from the diverse background that Gregory brings with him from acts like Killing Joke and Swans, but somehow in the crazy, hyperkinetic atmosphere, some sense of traditional rock and roll is maintained.
Actually, The Witches are probably more interesting than anything Metallica has done lately anyway, even if the lack of commercial success won’t buy mansions. There’s a real sense of variety in the music on Universal Mall, even though the tone seems to be more or less steadily dark. Certain songs, like “Given Up Girls” and “What It Really?,” stick to a more or less acoustic (yet still bass-heavy) format, while others, like “People What’s Wrong with You?” and “(She Got Some Kinda) Thing”, sound more less like straight-up garage rock. But at this album’s most brilliant—and confusing—moments, The Witches let the chaos loose.
Possibly my favorite track on the album, “The Robot Family”, begins with some simple guitar-bass chord thumping, then peppers the tune with some baritone sax, as well as featuring the most melodic singing on the record. Then all hell breaks loose: the guitars become a wall of noise, the bari sax becomes a blaring horn of madness—with either some double-recorded sax or another alto sax thrown in under the mix—the bass becomes a rumbling miasma, and the drums lose all sense of consistent rhythm. And yet it sounds like a glorious rebellion of atonality, something like the live chaos of a Crash Worship show.
Gregory and company pull out all the bells and whistles (and organs and synths and everything in between) to be a part of the mix. The end result is an album that is difficult to pin down beyond its emotional reaction. The lyrics are dense, and often beyond interpretation, so it’s mostly the affect of sound that becomes Universal Mall‘s real communication. That sound’s one downside is that it’s soupy, thick, and somewhat sluggish, but at its calmest and wildest moments, it envelops the listener like a cloud. The Witches’ music might slip past many listeners’ radars because of either its oddly retro feel or its often anti-melodic complexity, but those who take the time to listen will find a dense, dark world within this deceptive garage-rock sound.