Album Review: WITCH MOUNTAIN Witch Mountain
When former Witch Mountain vocalist, Uta Plotkin announced her departure from the band back in 2014, the common belief amongst fans and the band itself was that the Portland veterans were in for a long hiatus. Plotkin’s bluesy bellow and smoky style raised the bar to difficult, if not, unimaginable heights. With the global population inching towards 8 billion people, there would certainly be plenty of stratosphere-scraping warblers out there to choose from, but how many of them would be jones-ing to join forces with a comparatively obscure doom metal band?
Also, for candidates able to cut the talent and performance mustard, would they understand what they’d be getting into? Would they be able to hang on a personal level? Fairytale stories abound of dudes from the Philippines joining Journey, former TV show contestants joining Queen and various American Idols going on to solo career success, but trying to convince someone with equal amounts of vocal skill as delusions of riding in hot tub limos and snorting rails off fake tits that headlining sweaty dive bars and/or 30 minute opening slots is a cool thing was going to be a tough sell.
As original members Rob Wrong (guitars) and Nathan Carson (drums)—Justin Brown (bass) rounds out the lineup—settled in for a stretch of inactivity, they apparently forgot about the horseshoes wedged in their collective arse cracks. A mere four months after Plotkin served her notice, Kayla Dixon materialised out of thin air. The Washington, D.C. resident was still in her teens at the time but had experience with musical theater, acting, dance, and metal, as an ex-member of Demons Within and Helion Prime. After a four year period of getting-to-know-you, which included Dixon relocating across the country, the band contributing to a Black Sabbath tribute, and tours with Yob, Enslaved, Danzig, St. Vitus and The Skull, here we are on the eve of album number five.
Of course, the differences between Plotkin and Dixon’s voices are going to be put into crosshairs. Especially considering the latter is picking up somewhere along a rapidly rising trajectory line that is greatly attributed to the former. Track and field enthusiasts think of it like this: Jamaica’s 4×100 men’s relay team moves a prime Usain Bolt to the third leg where he’s handing the baton off to some dude you’ve never heard of running the anchor leg. Thankfully, and frankly, expectedly, the new anchor doesn’t trip over untied shoelaces and fall flat on her face.
Where Plotkin’s pipes recalled the bluesy bluster of a barrel-bodied demoness belting it out in 1900s juke joints, Dixon’s voice soars at greater heights with studied dramatics and poise. “Midnight” kicks off the album with a meaty, stompin’ an’ strutin’ riff with Dixon leaping straight into the deep end as she accents her throaty cabaret style with black metal banshee scraping and soulful ululations. “Mechanical World” uses layered double tracking to inject a mixture of old-school R&B vocalisations into the redesigned house of Moulin Rouge. For some reason, my mind’s ear keeps coming back to the image of an estrogen-powered Evil Elvis trading haymakers with German chanteuse Ute Lemper. The acoustic-based “Hellfire,” an almost solo showcase for the new frontwoman, is more wild-eyed and gospel-infused tension and release.
While the vocal differences, similarities, and comparisons will dominate, the rest of the album shouldn’t be glossed over. The songs themselves present with an economical maturity. Wrong’s traditional doom riffing is peppered with both a sludgy punch and NWOBHM sense of melody. In “Burn You Down” the shift between palm-muted plunder and proto-thrash gallop is so seamless that you hardly notice the tempo changes between verse and chorus and throughout its epic second half. In the past, there was the tendency to overextend riffs; to drag them out to the point of overuse. Repetition has been eased up on throughout Witch Mountain. The result simplifies matters as the standard approach prizes the use of space and texture, especially in the way Carson can provide a turnabout transition with a solitary cymbal ping or pattern. This pushes Witch Mountain into the realm of songwriters, not just riff writers.
As far as weaknesses go, the absence of Wrong’s lengthy, unfettered spells of heart-wrenching lead work is noticeable. As well, the 14-minute trawler, “Nighthawk,” while home to a killer Sabbathian riff teeming with high street swagger, didn’t need to be anywhere near 14 minutes long. In it, Dixon sounds like she’s straining to fill spaces and rests and struggling during the extended outro which a wailing solo likely would have been more effective.
Despite these minor blips, having one of the unheralded heroes of American doom metal back in action can only be a good thing. Being rejuvenated by the luck that brought Dixon into the fold—not to mention the nascent energy contributed by being half the age of her bandmates—paired with the perpetual motion machine that is the progression of Witch Mountain’s song writing acumen, should mean a bright future ahead. This may sound like a strange thing to say about a band that formed in 1997, but with the prospect of a lengthy layoff being positively kiboshed, momentum is strictly in the band’s favour.