The situation surrounding the release of Witch Mountain’s latest album is not one you see very often. It’s one thing for a metal band to lose a singer – a real test of a metal band’s greatness is how difficult it is to replace the singer – but to see a band whose career was transformed by the addition of a supreme vocal talent suddenly part ways with that singer mere days before the release of a highly anticipated new album is surreal to say the least. But that’s what happened with the Portland band; after a tremendous victory lap tour across North America with Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, the formidable Uta Plotkin has stepped down, leaving three of the best doom albums of the last decade as her legacy.
Mobile of Angels (Profound Lore), her third and final work with Witch Mountain, is a slight departure, one that benefits the record immensely and after a few listens asserts itself as the superior work. While Plotkin’s booming voice, which can range from guttural growls, to high-pitched shrieks, to lower-register bellows, to moments of tenderness and soul is the focal point, it’s never the sole reason Witch Mountain is what it is. Guitarist Rob Wrong, the band’s central composer, is just as key, and the contrast, the give-and-take between Wrong and Plotkin is what ultimately makes – erm, made – this particular foursome so special. Wrong’s style of doom metal is far more rooted in blues than, say, fellow Oregonians YOB, and the way he trades solo licks with Plotkin’s voice on “Can’t Settle”, or how he helps accentuate her devilish blues vocals on “Your Corrupt Ways (Sour the Hymn)”, is a marvel to hear.
Four of the five songs here take their own sweet time, as epic doom metal has a tendency to do, but deep down these tracks are very deliberately traditional, old-fashioned. The only difference is that they’re played slowly, anchored beautifully by Nathan Carson’s precise, extremely disciplined drumming. Two tracks make the most immediate impact, starting with opening cut “Psycho Animundi”, which follows the lead of the 2012 tune “Bloodhound”, focusing more on menace and confrontation, Plotkin’s forceful, husky voice commanding your attention before giving way to the expressive solo work by Wrong. Much different, and more revelatory, is “The Shape Truth Takes”, which closes the record. A blues ballad in the tradition of Deep Purple’s “Mistreated” Plotkin’s sensitivity achieves a similar effect to that of Anneke van Giersbergen’s groundbreaking work with The Gathering, bringing a level of femininity to such a masculine form of music that stops you dead in your tracks. It’s the prettiest and most restrained track Witch Mountain has ever done, producer Billy Anderson helping build the seven-minute song to a majestic climax. Better yet, it’s a remarkable high note for Plotkin to end her tenure on. She will undoubtedly be missed, but with that perennial strength of Wrong as the songwriter, people have every reason to believe this band will be back on its feet very soon. If Wrong can create chemistry with the next singer that works as well as Plotkin did, then that’ll be even better.
This week’s a big one, with a few more year-end list contenders. Read on:
1349, Massive Cauldron of Chaos (Season of Mist): Good for 1349 for putting out albums at a consistent enough rate and touring North America regularly enough to make them a fairly popular black metal band on this continent, but aside from their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun” is there actually any music of theirs that has any worth? This sixth album is yet another example where the whole process feels like a checklist rather than a memorable piece of music. Requisite black metal clichés, tropes, and playing styles are ticked off one by one, and it’s all done rather convincingly, save for the songwriting, which rarely rises above tepid. The song “Mengele’s” is a great example, with its snappy riff and head-bobbing groove, but like the incomplete title you’re left feeling oddly unsatisfied. Mengele’s what, guys? Mengele’s what?
Black Crown Initiate, The Wreckage of Stars (eOne): You hear moments where this young band could potentially swipe the torch from the once-mighty Between the Buried and Me, but for now this album merely follows the lead of BTBAM and Opeth a little too devoutly rather than coming up with its own ideas. It’s a good effort, but this band is clearly still growing, and I’ll be very curious to hear what these guys come up with next.
Butcher Babies, Uncovered (Century Media): Listen to these attention-seeking hacks massacre ZZ Top’s “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers”, and you’ll lose all faith in humanity. And Tank’s “Crazy Horses” cover is what you should be listening to, not the nu-metal shit these children are doing here. Shame on Century Media on pushing this garbage and ignoring a talented band on its roster like Wolf.
Death Penalty, Death Penalty (Rise Above): This band might be new, but it boasts a pedigree no new bands can boast, featuring former Cathedral guitarist Gaz Jennings and singer Michelle Nocon and drummer Frederik Cosemans from Belgian doomsters Serpentcult. Named after Witchfinder General’s Death Penalty, the greatest doom album by a band not named Black Sabbath or Candlemass, it’s also a fitting comparison, as Jennings finds a comfortable middle ground between hard-charging NWOBHM riffs and towering doom grooves. Nocon was already renowned for her great singing voice with Serpentcult, but she shows even greater range on these nine old-school rampagers. If “Howling at the Throne of Decadence”, “Written By the Insane”, and “Eyes of the Heretic” don’t leave you convinced this is one of the best new bands of 2014, the Tank-style jam “Immortal in Your Hands” will. In a month where Electric Wizard’s Jus Osborn was very outspoken in his dislike for Rise Above/Cathedral boss Lee Dorrian (be sure to read the Decibel cover story), Dorrian has quietly countered with the far superior album.
Decapitated, Blood Mantra (Nuclear Blast): It hasn’t been easy for Waclaw “Vogg” Kieltyka to rebuild Decapitated after the devastating 2007 crash that killed drummer Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka and seriously injured then-vocalist Adrian “Covan” Kowanek. Slowly but surely the guitarist got things back together with 2011’s impressive Carnival is Forever, but this follow-up, the band’s sixth full-length, is a monumental step forward. Vogg’s brand of technical death metal was always highly unique, but this time around those idiosyncrasies dominate instead of sharing the stage with traditional death metal ideas and forms. “Brutality” gives way for quirkier experiments, whether in Sepultura-inspired grooves or Meshuggah-style stuttered syncopation, yet never for a second feels derivative, instead using it all as a springboard to something he and the band can call their own. And the more adventurous this album gets, the better it is, as on “Red Sun”, the taut “Nest”, and the spectacular “Blindness”. This is a sensational piece of work by a stalwart band that finally, truly feels reborn in the wake of tragedy.
Electric Wizard, Time To Die (Spinefarm): The eighth album by the doom favourites is a strange one, alternating between moments where you feel Jus Osborn and Liz Buckingham recapturing the past glory of the classic Dopethrone and instances of pure tedium. At its best the record thunders and swings with force and grace (“I Am Nothing”, “Sadiowitch”, “Lucifer’s Slaves”), but far too often the songs slip into boring, extended jams that make no effort to leave an impression on the listener. Even worse is the overall tone of the record, which tries to sound abrasive but ultimately feels like an exercise in lo-fi gimmickry, with vocals by Osborn that sound like he just doesn’t give a shit anymore. Where’s the power this band is renowned for? They’re badly underachieving on this album, and someone at Spinefarm should have told them to come back with something befitting the Electric Wizard legacy. Despite its handful of good moments I’m not buying this music for a second, and neither should you.
Evergrey, Hymns For the Broken (AFM): Evergrey always has a good following, but it also seems as if they’re taken for granted, or worse, ignored by the hipper-than-thou underground set who refuse to find merit in strong heavy metal melodies. Well, sorry, kvltists who think metal should be “extreme” and “ugly” all the time, but this is a great band that so consistently mines the more ornate, gothic side of the genre, coming through with music that’s grandiose, epic in scope, and perpetually in keeping with what makes metal metal. Sure, Tom Englund has a habit of drifting into schmaltz, but what is gothic metal if not a bit schmaltzy? This is one hell of a good album (“King of Errors” is an absolute gem) that dives into melodic melodrama with shameless abandon. It’s a beautiful thing.
Gatekrashör, Gatekrashör (self-released): As I always say, I love any young band that looks and sounds permanently stuck in 1984. Of course, it’s important for heavy metal to keep moving forward, but it’s just as important for bands to keep the traditional flame alive, to keep the vintage sounds and ideas alive, whether derived from late-‘60s proto-metal, to those formative 1970s sounds, to the energy of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Or in this Calgary band’s case, the classic sounds of the great Canadian imprint Banzai Records. These four guys get it, from aesthetic to music, a charmingly lo-fi onslaught of speed and energy inspired by Jag Panzer, Agent Steel, Liege Lord, and most of all, Exciter. It is derivative, and revels in it, celebrates it. Anyone into whatever Hells Headbangers puts out will absolutely love this sucker, from “Force of the Blade” to the brilliant “Heavy Metal Rangers”. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Khold, Til Endes (Peaceville): The most interesting aspect of this latest album by the Norwegian weirdos isn’t the comically evil vocals, nor the cookie-cutter black metal riffing, but the hardcore punk element that permeates the music. When this album cranks the punk, wither via atonal riffs or straightforward grooves, it starts to set itself apart from the usual black metal conventions. Of course, that’s only flirted with. Had this band gone all in, then maybe it could have yielded something worth people’s time.
Meshuggah, I; The Ophidian Trek (Nuclear Blast): Meshuggah’s 2013 North American tour was something to behold, a masterful exercise in dexterity and awe-inspiring power by one of the best and most influential bands of the last 20 years. Now the band’s served up a cool little memento in the form of The Ophidian Trek, which was filmed at Wacken Open Air 2013 and features the exact same setlist. As with any other live DVD shot at Wacken, it can look a little sterile with little interaction between the band and its audience, but in Meshuggah’s case it works to their great advantage. These guys are so clinical in their approach, the music meant to be cold and precise, and it’s delivered impeccable here. Meanwhile, the long out-of-print I EP from 2004, featuring the stupendous 20-minute composition of the same name, finally sees a proper re-release in a special expanded edition. Personally I found this EP to be far more exciting experiment in cut-and-paste composition than the very disappointing Catch Thirtythree, and it’s great to see it back in this nifty edition that comes appended by a couple of live tracks and the studio track “Pitch Black”, which was originally released last year by Scion.
Nightbringer, Ego Dominus Tuus (Season of Mist): For anyone interested in finding the best black metal album this week, look no further than these Colorado guy. Always a consistently good band, Nightbringer is in strong form on this latest album, the sound suitably ferocious and overwhelming, but with plenty of melodic departures that range from classically inspired to good old progressive rock. At more than 70 minutes, it’s a challenging, strenuous listen, but while it would have benefitted greatly by having at least half an hour lopped off – the album would have left a much more immediate impression – this is nevertheless an example of a band completely understanding how to capture the sheer power of classic black metal, remaining firmly rooted in tradition but still plenty capable of carving out its own identity.
Sempiternal Dusk, Sempiternal Dusk (Dark Descent): Hailing from Portland, Oregon, this band plumbs the depths of primitive death metal, eschewing technical dexterity and “extremity” for churning, ritualistic grooves and brooding ambience. Lumbering along mightily with as keen a sense for melody as sheer force, this is the kind of death metal that remembers to create a sense of death so vivid you can almost smell the stench.
Sparky, #Humanimation (self-released): My patience has worn thin with “progressive” metal that shows no real progress at all, but this Canadian band has come through with one weird record, a total headscratcher that’ll have you dancing. Instrumentally as taut as King Crimson yet as playful as Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, Sparky remembers to incorporate a sense of fun to the music, and that levity makes this sneakily catchy music all the more personable. Crazily vibrant and always mindful of the importance of a good hook, this is one modern prog album that’s a total blast. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
White Empress, Rise of the Empress (Peaceville): Paul Allender’s first new band after leaving Cradle of Filth is in some ways cut from the same cloth from his old band, combining icy extremity with symphonic touches. However, so much more so than that band, White Empress has such a strong command of melody, creating an exceptional dynamic between harshness and hooks. Better yet, Allender has teamed up with the powerful-voiced Mary Zimmer, who after the short-lived 2000s band Luna Mortis had drifted away from the metal scene. Well, she makes a big, big splash on this record, which will appeakl to not only Cradle fans, but anyone who craves symphonic metal with more power and force than the frillier bands out there.
Not metal, but totally worth hearing:
Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds (Island/Universal): Ready for some pop? Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Nilsson has been slowly making a name for herself over the past year thanks to the gorgeous, self-deprecating single “Habits (Stay High)” which has slowly become one of 2014’s from-out-of-nowhere pop hits. Her full-length debut arrives on the wave of some substantial Stateside hype, and featuring a whopping 19 songs, Queen of the Clouds swings for the fences. Whether singing about timebombs, liking ‘em young, or being “charming as fuck”, Tove Lo makes an immediate impression with her buoyant, confessional tunes, fitting neatly between Robyn, Lykke Li, and Ellie Goulding, coming across as playful, daring, and impeccably developed as so much Swedish pop is. And look out, the deliriously profane “Talking Body” could be huge. Get on this album before the rest of the world does, and you know that’s so going to happen.