Backward-looking heavy metal that stares its own ridiculousness in the face and never cracks a smile, but does churn out a mean groove.
"Seer", the first track on Witch's self-titled debut album, threatens to topple itself and drown in the bog of its own self-indulgence. Riding a gargantuan riff while relating a nonsensical mystic tale, the song initially seems to find its raison d'etre in a succession of guitar solos. The first bleeds distortion, slipping into the red with bleary-eyed grace; the second flails some tremolo action; then both combine, over a bassline that vaguely recalls Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground". At four minutes things fade out and it seems over, as a grumbling bassline meanders under a haze of feedback; at six minutes, a whoosh and what sounds like a phaser-gun blast from an early 1980s Atari console zap the song back into another verse. Finally, at the eight-minute mark, the song dissipates into a fuzzy haze.
Amazingly, "Seer" does not topple, or laugh. It stares its own ridiculousness in the eye and doesn't even break a smile. And therein lies the Witch charm: while other retro-heavy metal acts wear their smirks like trucker hats, Witch plays it straight. The Sword may employ amusing alliteration that belies their faux-seriousness, and Wolfmother may strive for self-parodying retrograde gender constructs on "Woman", but if Witch is a joke, it never lets on. Its sound varies some across tracks -- "Soul on Fire" is Motorhead playing the blues, while other songs traffic in Black Sabbathery -- but the band is fundamentally rooted in the sound and ethos of sludgy 1970s metal acts like the immortal Pentagram, with whom Witch shares an obvious imagistic affinity.
Leading the band on guitar is Asa Irons and Kyle Thomas on vocals, a duo best known as members of the Vermont avant-folk collective Feathers, which has a certain thematic overlap with Witch itself but rarely allows Irons to bust loose with quite the same flailing madness. His playing manages to balance crunch and fluidity, achieving an endless groove that accommodates any number of effects pedal-fueled digressions. Anchoring Witch on drums is J Mascis, himself best known for leading indie heroes Dinosaur Jr. Mascis began his career drumming for hardcore band Deep Wound, and he supplied some off-kilter beats on Dino Jr's 1991 high point Green Mind, so his presence here is hardly as anomalous as it might appear at a glance. Mascis buddy Dave Sweetapple mans the bass, providing just the right dirty rumble.
When the members cohere, as they most often do, the results transcend the inevitable "stoner rock" tag. "Black Saint" provides one gripping example, as Irons lets rip a relatively relaxed riff, over which Thomas' vocals -- slightly buried in the mix, and encased in Ozzified echo -- warn of a "succubus in the twilight" and a "demon in the wishing well" (even throwing in a quick burst of demonic laughter after the latter). Sweetapple adds a bassline that wandered in from a prog-rock tune after gobbling a handful of Quaaludes, while Mascis at one point crawls from left to right across the stereo spectrum before receding into the background. No percussive grandstanding emanates from his kit, though a subdued breakdown helps send the song into its death throes, as Irons takes his riff into overdrive around the 5:30 mark and burns the song to cinders.
As the above descriptions suggest, brevity is not the soul of Witch. Closer "Isadora" doesn't even unleash that old distorted guitar snarl until the 3:30 point, after a leisurely pastoral stroll through acoustic patterns and shimmering cymbals. But the sonic sprawl works in the band's favor, giving the songs time to breathe. They inhale, exhale, and let their toxins circulate, and by the time they're reduced to sticky resin we wish there was a bit more to go around. Not every song casts an effective spell; no matter how many orgiastic solos "Rip Van Winkle" garnishes itself with, the song is still based on a crushingly obvious riff, and "Changing" lazily parks its motif in the Papa Roach Motel, adding some slightly exotic flourishes to what is at heart a nu-metal stomp. Still, even on that song Witch breaks into an unexpected choral vocal section a few minutes in, which works to rapturous effect. For that matter, the few moments of weakness are mitigated by the album's cohesiveness; this is essentially one solid, irresistible 40-minute groove. By the time Witch rolls to a close, you may not be riding that broom, but you will be playing air guitar on it.