Let’s get to the meat of this up front — Pumarosa’s The Witch is a stunning record, its mastery belied by its debut status. That a new band could craft a unified work so unorthodox and innovative is itself striking; that the individual songs are so damn good makes the accomplishment even more laudable. A mythic quality pervades the ten tracks. Several of the songs are quite lengthy, but, with a few exceptions, they manage to avoid feeling interminable thanks to an undercurrent of energy. They sprawl rather than meander, hooking your attention early on then unfurling and compelling you to embrace the ride. As its title implies, the album casts a hex on the listener, holding you enthralled.
The key to this is the protean genre splicing mastered by the London quintet. Disparate fundamentals of folk, grunge, post-punk, and dream pop are scattered on the table, then delicately sewn into a cohesive tapestry. Gleaming synths abut distortion-laden guitars, while acoustic strumming offsets industrial clamor. It’s as if remnants from a shipwreck washed ashore, only for the natives who found them to precociously merge them, unaware of the conventions that would have otherwise held them back. There is scarcely any discord here, the resultant whole keeping the parts from seeming incongruent. At the same time, Pumarosa avoids plunging too deep into the avant-garde realm and creating a polarizing work. Rather, the band deftly pushes the harmonious experimentation just far enough to hypnotize.
A not-quite-nocturnal, dusk-like mood runs throughout, established with opener “Dragonfly”. It starts hazily, like one awakening from a dreamless sleep. Amid formless tones, singer-guitarist Isabel Munoz-Newsome’s husky croon emerges to obliquely express an epiphany of resolve, to shed the skin of one’s past and fly away like the titular insect. From there is stirred a lightly surging rhythm punctuated by subtle key plinking. “The more you give / The more you have to lose”, Munoz-Newsome intones, just before the music around her dynamically crashes, separates, then flows back together. It sweeps along with purpose, not too eager, but determined.
Successor “Honey” appropriates a punkish flavor, particularly on the catchy chorus of Munoz-Newsome venomously spitting “Oh, you stupid sonofabitch!” above undulating guitars. At points, her delivery calls to mind the vibrato of Savages’ Jehnny Beth. The tune’s frayed urgency also captures a torrid, fever dream element. Come the end, it roils into a torrent of guitars and pummeling drums swirling about like a storm. It’s a paradigm several of the remaining numbers adhere to. The title track dials things down with twitchy synths and a flickering bass line, the ambiance that of an ethereal dispatch. In due time, tribal percussion and sparse piano notes arise. “It’s not human nature / It’s what they made you,” Munoz-Newsome sings as the song ascends to near inspirational heights, the vocals and music escalating their intensity in tandem. It ends on a psychedelic soundscape fusing Eastern influences, some noise rock, and a bit of unnerving sci-fi soundtrack tones.
“Priestess”, the album’s lead single, is the perfect song for showcasing the album’s dichotomies. It’s earthy and spacey at once, both archaic and futuristic. There’s a mystery to it, luring you to something possibly nefarious within a seductive shell. The first two minutes radiate ominously, a bouncing bass line functioning like a tether to a kite. It flitters as if looking for a base to settle on before shuffling drums come in and anchor the proceedings. While a fluid guitar line holds thing steady, a baritone sax bubbles up two-thirds of the way in, unexpectedly taking the song in another direction and showing Pumarosa are confident in their ability to rattle expectations.
As the album goes on, its momentum doesn’t waver, nor does its ability to surprise. “Red” opens with a funky, jam band guitar lick haloed by a synth sheen. Wordless spectral vocals between the verses drift like birdsong, growing in power as they’re increasingly looped. The record’s most minimalistic contribution, “Barefoot”, zeros in for an intimate respite with an acoustic melody and synth noodling mixed in the background. Late in the game, the rug is pulled out when danceable beats appear. Once again, what on paper would be jarring manages to work in implementation. “My Gruesome Loving Friend” opens with a charming eight-bit melody lying over whirlpool, Crazy Horse-esque guitars. It’s Pumarosa at their most whimsical and quirky. Up-tempo as it is, it’s a reassuring number that revels in optimism, a rarity considering the dour pall cast over much of the record. Contrasting with it is “Lions’ Den”, a grungy, opium den dirge. Built on minor piano chords and the negative space between them, screeching guitars emote like a writhing rat king. On the downside, it is another track that ends with instrumental pandemonium and, captivating as it is on its own merits, the reliance on such an approach makes the album start to feel predictable.
Wrapping matters is Snake, skittering with fidgety effects and side-cutting distortion washes. It pans out and in with Munoz-Newsome’s echoing incantations, splitting the difference between drone, industrial, and weird pop. The overarching loop of the tune at times can be vertigo-inducing, hitting on some primal trigger. As it builds and builds, it suddenly relents to a rhythmic key pattern, winding down and out as Gregorian chant-like vocals send it off.
All ten entries on The Witch are exceptional. As a unit, they compose an engrossing aural experience. It’s an album a band would normally release as their third or fourth LP, once they’ve found their groove. That Pumarosa conjure something so assured and appealing, so virtuosic without being alienating, as their debut is staggering.