It’s all but unavoidable: The press for Witch’s self-titled debut will be dominated by references to J Mascis, the alt-rock living legend who lends both musical talents and an impressive head of hair to the band. And in a way, that isn’t so bad; most listeners of catholic tastes won’t find it too hard to see parallels between Witch’s monolithic hard rawk and the more plodding aspects of Mascis’ “other” gig, Dinosaur Jr. (“Sludgefeast,” anyone?). Indeed, the jet-fueled riffage and shrieking solos which lurch out of the speaker during opening track “Seer” wouldn’t sound out of place at one of Dinosaur’s reunion shows… except for the fact that Mascis isn’t playing them. Instead, he’s behind the drums for this project, and that little detail makes it hardly fair to keep calling Witch a “J Mascis Solo Project.”
So how do we label it? Some have argued for “doom metal”, though I’m not big on genres, and the use of a loaded word like “metal” runs the risk of driving listeners away with conjured images of corny faux-occultism, flights of virtuosic self-indulgence, and other such cheap preteen thrills. Not that Witch doesn’t exude all of the above – this is easily the guiltiest pleasure to make it onto Pitchfork’s newswire since the Darkness, an entirely unselfconscious, unironic celebration of everything brutish and juvenile about heavy rock (except maybe the sex). It’s just that this particular mix of plodding, leaden sludgefeasts and dime-store mysticism has a hell of a lot more in common with proto-metalheads like Black Sabbath than, say, Venom.
And man, does it rock. Asa Irons, the real man behind Witch’s fretwork, wields his axe like it really is a deadly weapon, his über-heavy tone about the last thing you’d expect from a guy who also plays with “avant-folk” group Feathers and who contributed to Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow last year. His Feathers bandmate, vocalist Kyle Thomas, also gets credit for a voice that can go from Bolanic effeminacy to he-banshee wail at the flick of a switch. Meanwhile, Mascis and bass player Dave Sweetapple hold down the bottom end with rock-solid, pummeling rhythm-section work.
Of course, the end result of all this combined power is largely what you choose to make of it; Witch the album doesn’t boast “highlights” so much as a series of subtle variations on one, supremely executed mood. All of the songs adhere to essentially the same formula: Start slow and steady on the main riffs, speed up to double-time for the solos, then bring the tempo back down for an even heavier grind on the outro. What works and what doesn’t is largely a matter of preference. Want more slow, less fast? Try “Hand of Glory.” Prefer the rapid-fire solos? “Rip Van Winkle”‘s your man. Wanna hear Thomas let loose with a remarkably Ozzy-esque cackle? That’d be “Black Saint.” And it’s just about as simple as that.
But seriously, who needs hooks when we can headbang? Witch clearly sets out to be an entertaining genre project first and foremost – one, ideally, that will rock our asses off in the process – and as such, the band does not disappoint. The rock is hard, the lyrics are ridiculous, and the cover art – depending on what generation of stoner culture you hail from – resembles either a black-light poster or a Commodore 64 role-playing game. What more do you need, a final song which begins with finger-picked acoustic guitar a la “Stairway to Heaven” before building to a thrashing, shuddering, sign of the beast-flashing climax? Well guess what – you’ve got that too. Fact is, if there’s even a shred of heaviosity in your system, then Witch will please you like nothing else. Go ahead, crank it… and if you don’t immediately feel the urge to grow a scraggly mustache and invest in a fur-lined jean jacket, try checking your pulse.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins