I’ve complained to more than one person about Sam Dunn’s “Metal Evolution” series that aired on VH-1 in the States, where the anthropologist/film director dissected heavy metal, presented a study on each of its genres, and explained the origins of the music. When taking on the influence jazz and, especially, blues had on the genre, he seems dumbfounded by just how much those styles affected heavy music.
How could he NOT know that? You’re hosting this series. If you don’t know, who does? Maybe I’m being overly critical of one statement. Some people have told they think he’s pretending to learn along with the audience. But if I, some asshole on a couch in Pittsburgh already know this, how does he not? Whatever. He got to interview Ronnie James Dio and I didn’t.
Anyway, obviously had it not been for blues, there would be no metal, and there certainly there would not be doom. Blues are the roots of the genre, and early artists such as Led Zeppelin (huge American blues enthusiasts) and standard-bearers Black Sabbath washed themselves in the stuff and transformed what they loved into an ugly, hulking monster. Four decades later, things have only gotten more sinister, and many of today’s doom bands are terrifying to hear because they’ve taken the genre straight to hell. In the best possible way. Yet there are those that still cling to some of doom and metal’s earliest incarnations and remain fervently obedient to that style of music. Oregon’s Witch Mountain are one of those bands, and they’re wonderfully traditional through and through.
Witch Mountain have had a pretty bizarre, uncharacteristic existence. They delivered an EP “Homegrown Doom” in 2000, then their debut album “Come the Mountain” in 2001, and then they disappeared. The band went on to tend to family matters and other projects, and they seemed destined to fade away fairly unnoticed by much of the metal world. But in 2009 things started to get going again. They played shows opening for Pentagram, another classic doom band that seemed like it never would reach the glory its members deserved, but instead of guitarist Rob Wrong handling vocals, they recruited Uta Plotkin. To say Plotkin’s voice is powerful would be a massive understatement. Her pipes are sirens, and she has an intensity and command not heard by many vocalists. Yes, there are plenty of strong singers, but they are not Plotkin. Her presence reignited the band’s fire, and in 2011, they returned with their stunning new album “South of Salem,” one of the most unexpected surprises of that year.
The band eventually signed on with Profound Lore, who reissued a CD version of “Salem,” and suddenly news surfaced that the band was ready to follow up their sophomore release already with another bluesy slab of retro doom. Witch Mountain, who have been dormant for most of their existence, transformed themselves into prolific creators practically overnight, and their third album “Cauldron of the Wild” already is here for the taking. Truth be told, I’m not even done fully digesting “Salem,” but I enjoy that album so much that taking on new songs wasn’t much of a problem for me.
Yet visiting “Cauldron,” I’m not as moved as I was with their sophomore record. One of the major issues for me, weirdly, is Plotkin, who was the reason I loved “Salem” so much. As noted, she’s an incredibly powerful singer, but that’s sort of her undoing on this album. There are times that, for some reason, her reaching-for-the-stratosphere singing sounds wrong to me. It sounds like she’s lunging for something that’s out of her grasp, and many of her high notes end up stinging the ears rather than soothing with smoky goodness. This isn’t a problem for the entire run of the record, but it rears its head now and again and makes things not feel right to me. And trust me, I’ve read enough reviews of this record to know I am pretty much in a corner all by myself on this opinion, but personally, I can’t get with some of her singing on “Cauldron.” At other times, I’m right along with her, enjoying her work as much as I did what she conjured on “Salem.”
The record opens with “The Ballad of Lanky Rae,” the tale of a 7-foot giant woman who roams and dominates the underworld with a male companion. It makes me think of a gangly Brienne of Tarth, if I may be a huge dork for a moment. Anyway, the rest of the band — it also includes bassist Neal Munson and drummer Nathan Carson — hits on a nice bluesy groove, but this is one of tracks where I feel Plotkin’s singing goes off the rails a bit. As far as her storytelling goes, it’s sharp and effective. “Beekeeper,” a burly, slow-driving number, also has some vocals that don’t do a lot for me, but the discomfort comes and goes as Plotkin evens out her delivery. From that point, the album gains momentum. “Shelter” is a Sabbath-friendly number that does smoke, and Plotkin really turns it on here, delivering a mostly steady performance. That leads into “Veil of the Forgotten,” where the singing stands out as a major plus, and killer ballad “Aurelia,” which is organic, emotional, and a little scary, especially with Plotkin’s warnings of, “Just run, run run.” “Never Know” closes things off on a high note (kind of literally as it has some nice stoner vibes), but eventually the songs explodes, and as much as I’ve criticized Plotkin, she exudes power and sexiness here, especially when she howls, “Don’t know if you’re dead, but I like it that way.”
Obviously I prefer “South of Salem” to “Cauldron of the Wild,” but opinions among most critics seem to swing the other way. It took a while to process these songs, but the ones that are working for me, I really like. The ones that don’t particularly turn me on haven’t gained much ground. I still revel in this band’s uniqueness, and Plotkin remains their most interesting weapon. I’d like to hear her a bit more grounded next time around, because she did that so well on “Salem,” and hopefully this band keeps making music at a fairly regular clip.
For more on the band, go here: http://www.facebook.com/witchmountain
To buy the album, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/plr-items/witch-mountain-cauldron-of-the-wild/
For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/