Witch Mountain’s 2014 release ‘Mobile of Angels’ was huge in almost every sense. It was an album that at first seemed impenetrable, but patience and an ear for doom riffs slowly revealed a dense but lovingly created paean to all things dark – an album that remains undiminished by the intervening years. It also came with an undertone of sadness: between the recording and release of the record, vocalist Uta Plotkin announced her intentions to leave the band…and in turn, left some pretty huge shoes to fill. Having only been a member for a year, bassist Charles Thomas also exited stage left, leaving a somewhat depleted outfit.
No strangers to fluctuations in band line-ups, founding members Rob Wrong (guitar/vocals) and Nate Carson (drums) set about putting together a new Witch Mountain. Enter vocalist Kayla Dixon and bassist Justin Brown… Live shows followed and by the time the new Witch Mountain were ready to enter the studio to record a long-awaited follow up, they were – in the words of Carson – “a fully fledged, road tested, family unit”. …And it shows: for a release recorded with half a band’s worth of new members, ‘Witch Mountain’ – its lack of title surely representing a new beginning – is every bit as good as its predecessor. Perhaps even better; in Dixon, they’ve found the perfect voice for their established doom laden sound.
‘Midnight’ begins the album with a no-frills slab of heavy blues. The slow, stomping groove and no-nonsense riff comes across like an old Goatsnake tune re-tooled with a Crowbar styled slowness. It’s not really new territory for Witch Mountain, but the simple arrangement is the perfect opener for showcasing the new vocalist’s talents. Kayla balances the heavy sounds with a hearty vocal, a partial blues in which she curls her voice like Black Moth’s Harriet Bevan, but not content with just latching onto something that’d please a blues rock fan, she balances this with a rasping black metal inflection on the choruses and a banshee wail elsewhere. A striking performance, indeed, especially since she covers so much ground in just under five minutes. It’s not just the Kayla show, either: the band might have had their line-up decimated following the release of the previous record but, musically, they’re as tough as ever. The drums lurch forth slowly and menacingly with a rhythm that’s punctuated by the clang of a ride cymbal; the guitars offer excellent sludgebeast riffs that are almost as deep as a bass, while the new bassist Justin thuds relentlessly, very much helping to keep a beat. In doom metal terms, this might be an instant classic.
There’s something about the disjointed riff and punch at the outset of the second track ‘Mechanical World’ which sounds like it might cast aside the doom for something from a different musical landscape. As the number progresses, however, it sounds more like Witch Mountain but parts of it are half a world away from the doom that informs so much of their material, too. That’s hardly surprising since this is the ‘Mechanical World’ originally recorded by Spirit, but it’s to Witch Mountain’s credit that they’re really able make it their own. Keeping with a stop-start riff for the most part, the music is the perfect fit for the mechanics of the title, with Wrong’s guitar chugging loudly, front and centre. In places, the disjointed feel is replaced by a heavy circular riff; in others, a slow and doomy interlude. At all times, though – despite interesting takes on old-school riffs and bluesy leads – it’s the vocals that win out, and whether reaching for a rock belt or delving into soulful but haunting climes, as she does at the track’s end, Dixon’s voice is absolutely captivating. This is the sound of a band willing to draw from other musical sources while still pushing forward with their own agenda…and it’s great.
Released as a single ahead of the album (way ahead in 2016), ‘Burn You Down’ was Kayla’s debut with the band and even hearing the track as part of this excellent collection of songs, her talents stand out. A mid paced, very sludgy riff quickly takes a hold, with a multi-layered sound making everything sound muddier than ever. Despite the uncompromising audio sound, there’s much to love: a couple of faster riffs move towards a sludge rock tribute to Judas Priest; a howling guitar solo combines the fury of the 80s with the dirty blues that’s become so in vogue at the time of this recording and a neo-gothic stomp towards the end marks a shift to something more cinematic. Without labouring a point, it’s easy to hear why Kayla was brought into the vocalist’s position without too much hesitation. Her bluesy style combined with metallic cries is in a classic style – a fantastic foil for some of Rob’s bluesier traits which he brings out to give this track a suitable climax – and her extreme metal growls that make another appearance here are brilliantly executed; frightening enough to give Witch Mountain a real edge and a feeling their mood could turn on a pin wheel, while remaining more palatable than most of Alissa White-Gluz’s more critically acclaimed work.
An extended interlude, ‘Hellfire’ offers a couple of minutes of respite from the heaviness, showing that Witch Mountain are capable of far more than sheer riffery. The sounds of wind and bells set up an ominous atmosphere, before acoustic guitars set about creating a dark folk tune, something that takes its obvious cues from Tony Iommi’s acoustic noodlings like the Sabs’ own ‘Fluff’. The album’s production gives the acoustic elements a sharpness that’s welcome, while multi-layered vocals unleash far more of Kayla’s soulful side. The metal purists will hate it, but it’s an important piece on the album, giving even more heart to an otherwise very dense listen.
There’s no question that this album has been fantastic thus far, but the whole thing builds towards ‘Nighthawk’, a devastating number that showcases most of Witch Mountain’s best traits in an epic finish. To start, Justin wrings the neck of his bass, laying foundations with deep and bendy notes worthy of Geezer Butler, while Wrong plays some fierce deep blues runs. This could go on for much longer than it does and still not get boring, but the band have other avenues to explore. Soon enough, a pounding drum and heavy riff inform a very slow blues, somewhere between Black Sabbath’s ‘Warning’ and a deep cut from Black Moth. It’s got an unsettling presence, but the way Dixon uses the riffs as a springboard for an echoing blues vocal really adds atmosphere. Moving into the second section, the riffs get louder and expand into Goatsnake-ish melodic sludge before the vocals rise above everything with a world of mournful cries. It’s not so different from a couple of the previous performances, but it feels like it comes from a much deeper place somehow. By this time, Dixon sounds as if she’s fronted the band forever… Eventually, there are dalliances with a black metal vocal and a circular chug, but things never stray far from their deep blues origins. While this clocks in at almost fifteen minutes, it’s ambitious, but at the same time, you shouldn’t necessarily expect anything too flashy; despite its near side long length, it isn’t about excess or self indulgence, but rather more a great way of stretching the doom laden blues into places that feel so deep you could get lost within yourself while listening.
Approaching this record as true underdogs, Witch Mountain have come up trumps with this self-titled rebirth. It’s got everything: riffs, devastating bottom end, riffs, superb vocals (superb vocals), riffs, a feeling that the band are ready to take on the world…and more riffs. If you love anything heavy with a fantastic female vocal, this is for you. If you liked Witch Mountain before, this is still for you – and frankly, if you don’t like it, there’s something very wrong with you. Doom metal has rarely sounded so good.