When Witch’s self-titled debut dropped in 2006, the album caught me by surprise. Mainly because J. Mascis was in the band, as their drummer. Mascis, for those unaware, is the man behind the long-running legendary indie rock band Dinosaur Jr.—a longtime favorite of mine (those fuzzy solos are so nice). So when I heard he had once again set up shop behind the drum kit, it was unexpected.

Before Dinosaur Jr., Mascis bashed the skins in the punk/hardcore band Deep Wound and later, in the early 90s, for the doom-metal band Upsidedown Cross. With Witch, he not only traded in his guitar and wah-wah pedal for a drum kit, he also revisited a heavier, doomier metal style far removed from the musical style of the band he built his career on.

Joined by Kyle Thomas (guitar and vocals) and Asa Irons (guitar), both from the avant-folk/rock band Feathers, and Dave Sweetapple (bass), the result is pretty fantastic.

Witch play a slightly mixed bag of doom-metal styles: traditional, stoner, and psychedelic, though heavy on the traditional side of the spectrum with a good dose of 70s rock. The cabalistic lyrical content may remind some of Witchcraft, and fans of the legendary St. Vitus or Pentagram may hear musical similarities, but Witch groove with a more vintage rock swagger than those aforementioned bands—at least the latter two. This is consistently reinforced by Kyle Thomas’s vocals when his upper-range begins to sound somewhat akin to that of old-school Robert Plant. The guitar work throughout the album is excellent, rife with solos and dark grooves courtesy of the Sabbath-heavy riffs. Sweetapple’s bass runs and clear tone in the mix make his instrument more of a standout element rather than an unnoticed part of the rhythm section, the backbone of which is Mascis’s standard but solid drumming.

The album starts in epic form with the stunning “Seer,” a glorious doom-laden jam best suited for a funeral parade at the End of Days. The same formula is applied to other tracks like the stalking stomp of “Black Saint”—accompanied by riff-heavy two-and-a-half-minute closing jam punctuated by some fuzzy dual leads—and the mind-wearying ebb and flow of “Rip Van Winkle.” With the first six songs painting on coat after coat of heavy, doom-riddled texture you might find yourself scratching your head when the final song, “Isadora,” opens with acoustic guitars and subtle vocals wrapped in an eerie melancholia that lasts for almost four minutes. But then things veer back into familiar territory as the floodgates are opened to the down-tuned riffage and solo work that comprise the first six songs. The song ends in classic, plodding doom fashion and Kyle Thomas singing “Isadora” over and over and over again…

And this is generally where I hit play again.

In the years since this album was released, with newer bands like The Sword, Saviours, Blood of the Sun, Priestess, Dixie Witch and Early Man having imparted varying degrees of 70s-influenced stoner rock and doom upon our ears, the style began to feel a bit overwhelming, the scene saturated in mediocrity. Thanks, of course, to the labels who tried to exploit things and shove more and more similar bands down our throats, as they tend to do. Despite this, there will always be a handful of diamonds to be found within the deep, sucking mud of the mainstream’s latest go-to genre. Witch, and those aforementioned bands, are some of those diamonds.

This review originally appeared in Shock Totem #4, July 2011.

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Ghost Brothers of Darkland County Soundtrack

I love Stephen King. I love John “Cougar” Mellencamp. And, yes, I am aware he dropped the “Cougar” some time ago but that’s what I’ve always known him as so I don’t really care. I also love producer T-Bone Burnett’s work. So when I first heard about this project, I was intrigued.

The legend goes, that in the 1990’s Stephen King received a phone call from Mellencamp that began with “Hey, this is John Mellencamp, I’d like to talk to you about an idea for a play I’ve got.” The idea was loosely based on an event that had happened decades earlier on Mellencamp’s Indiana property. From there the idea began to take shape and grow.

Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County centers around two sets of brothers: Jack and Andy are ghosts, killed in an apparent murder/suicide after escalated feuding; and their nephews, Frank and Drake, who are still alive but seem destined to follow the same dire path as their ghostly uncles. There is also Joe, the father of Frank and Drake and the younger brother of the deceased Andy and Jack. Joe decides he has his own secrets to reveal in hopes of staying the inevitable tragedy that his family seems marked for.

The events are narrated by a character known as “The Shape,” who seems to be some devilish being.

While the stage production has gotten mixed reviews, it is limited in its runs and has not played anywhere near enough for me to catch. When this soundtrack showed up in the mail, I was excited. Some of which died as soon as I saw Sheryl Crow on the artists roster. Blech!

There are over thirty tracks on this CD, more than half being snippets of dialogue from the play, read by an array of actors who include: Matthew McConaughey, Meg Ryan, Samantha Mathis, Hamish Linklater, and others.

Interspersed among the shards of dialogue are the songs, all penned by Mellencamp and performed by some of the biggest names in songwriting famedom: Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson, Ryan Bingham,Dave Alvin, Taj Mahal, and—sigh—Sheryl Crow…

Since I have never seen the play and all I had to go on, so far as story synopsis, was what I could dig up online and in the liner notes of this soundtrack, it’s a bit of a confusing listen. The dialogue is jarring and abrupt in its segues to the music.

The music is a mish-mash of Americana-tinged folk and ragged bluesy country/rock. When it’s on…it’s really on. An example being Neko Case’s incredible “That’s Who I Am,” which brings to mind classic Patsy Cline. Elvis Costello is at his kitschy, chameleonic best with his entries “That’s Me” and “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me.” Dave and Phil Alvin—feuding brothers who seemed destined for destruction at one point—team up on a number or edgy, raw blues blasts. And the raw and ravaged voice of Kris Kristofferson works so well as the voice of the weary Uncle Joe.

On the whole, I’d say I like the music. I think it would be a better listen if it was just the music. Leave the samples of dialogue out of it and let the music speak for itself. It would be a clearer, more enticing device. That said, I hope to get the chance to check out the complete work some day, without having to drive for days to do so.

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The Boney Hand of Death is Nigh

I discovered Ghoultown by way of Solitude Aeturnus, my all-time favorite doom-metal band. Count Lyle, vocalist and once a bassist in Solitude Aeturnus, founded Ghoultown in the late 90s. The epic, somber tones of his doom days are not to be found here, though. Instead, Ghoultown plays southern gothabilly mixed with horrorpunk on a Spaghetti Western binge, a house band for a hoedown in Hell.

Life After Sundown is the band’s sixth album, and easily their best to date. It begins with “Cruel Winds of Dusk,” an intro that elicits images of an imminent showdown on the main street of a lawless desert town. And maybe that’s the point, as “Dead Outlaw” follows, barging out the saloon’s batwing doors, drunk on firewater and ready to kill. “Against a Crooked Sky” and “Werewolves on Wheels” keep that punk rockabilly spirit kicking up dust, as do “Find a Good Horse” and “Under the Phantom Moon.”

“I Spit on Your Grave” is a sweaty ode to vengeance, while “London Dungeon” is a dark country and western take on the Misfits’ punk classic. Life After Sundown is a fantastic album, but the brilliance of “Drink with the Living Dead” is what truly sets Ghoultown apart from the other bands spinning yarns about drinkin’ and fightin’ and causin’ a cowboy ruckus. “Drink with the Living Dead” is exactly what its title suggests, a six-minute cautionary tale about a liquefied showdown with the ghost of Stanton Cree. Pure lyrical and musical genius.

Like its predecessors, Life After Sundown is a masterful piece of work, only this time it’s even better. Ghoultown has created the perfect soundtrack for a drunken night of poker, murder, and whorin’…

Zoviet Records | 2008 | 12 tracks (43:21) | File Under: Hellbilly Horror Rock

Originally appeared in Shock Totem #1, July 2009.

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The Light and All the Dark

A few years back, I was fortunate enough to review By Blood Alone’s Eternally EP. Here is an excerpt of that review: “Like the legendary Bauhaus (arguably the most famous gothic rock band ever) stylistically mixed it up in the 80s, By Blood Alone have combined many different elements on Eternally, from rock, metal, doom, gothic romanticism, even a little pop, and created a tapestry that is undeniably gothic in style but also much more—if you can listen beyond the free-form, minimalist nature of the songs.”

And so comes Seas Of Blood, By Blood Alone’s first full-length album.

Not a lot has changed since Eternally, in terms of style. I’ve read some call this a progressive gothic album, but I disagree. The band still mixes it up pretty well, but they keep that musical sea a bit calmer than the term progressive suggests. The album does, however, boast some very interesting, style-shifting pieces that also have the metal and symphonic elements kicked up a few notches. This is immediately evident on the opening track, “Serpentarius,” which starts like a lost 80’s-metal classic before shifting into a keyboard-heavy masterpiece. “Wants Me Dead” (re-recorded from their 2004 demo) continues to carry the proverbial metal torch, its fire fed by John Graveside’s galloping “fist in the air” riffs. However, the song’s heaviness seems to come not from the guitar but from the subtle yet chilling keyboard work of Jenny Williamson. “Lovely Lies” and “Nidhogg” embrace a similar style, slowly exuding a sense of dread and foreboding.

With four of the album’s eight tracks walking a relatively similar path, it could have been very easy for the band to get bogged down in a well-traveled rut. Fortunately, By Blood Alone understand balance. The creepy “Undead Friend” plays like a burial waltz for the recently departed—if it were the 1800s. And the twisted and quirky “Little Lady Lillit”—with vocalist Cruella doing her sadistic best at sounding cute and downright devious—reminds me of Emilie Autumn’s post-Enchant foray into her self-dubbed Victoriandustrial style. A new recording of “Deny Yourself”—which was on the Eternally EP—is the album’s heaviest track, relying more on the crunch of guitar and double-bass than the atmospheric veil of keyboards. The epic—and arguably best—of the album is “Seas Of Blood,” a graceful and expansive track that evokes a sort of sad beauty. The music rises and falls with the slow intensity of an ocean swell, Cruella’s voice lightly but passionately rocking on its surface.

By Blood Alone isn’t a flawless band. Part of me wishes the guitars had a fatter, heavier tone, and others have mentioned that Cruella’s vocals aren’t as strong as some others. While those might be valid complaints for most bands, I think it actually adds to the character of the band’s music. There’s something real and warm in its imperfections. And there’s nothing bad about this band, especially when it comes to the songs. A band like Linkin Park might have the luxury of spending two years doing pre-production, two more years of studio recordings and even more overdubs, for what ends up a thirty-minute album with not a note out of place, but it loses the human element in the process—it lacks the passion and defined character of something real. While not flawless, By Blood Alone is a band that is nearly so, in spite—or possibly because—of its flaws. Seas Of Blood is an outstanding album.

Jericho Hill Records | 2007 | 8 tracks (50:19) | File Under: Gothic Metal

Originally appeared in Shock Totem #1, July 2009.

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When the Radio Goes Dead

What happens when you partner the son of a country legend with one of the greatest and most recognizable writers of the century? You get one of the best albums released in 2010, in my humble opinion.

Shooter Jennings has, thankfully, never tried very hard to shake the shackles of his roots. When your father is Waylon Jennings, why would you? He looks and sounds so much like Waylon, it is uncanny. After putting out several albums on his own, all mining familiar territory of honky-tonk outlaw country with tinges of hard rock, he upped the ante.

Black Ribbons was an undertaking, and I would imagine a hard sell to the label. CD sales—and music sales in general—have been on the steady decline for a few years. So how the long hard, dark-eyed young man was able to sell a cynical concept album about the government control of the media, and land the participation of the one and only Stephen King, is nothing short of a miracle. But it worked. Whatever he did, it worked.

The story arc of the album is an edgy one. In the not too distant future, on a given day, the big bad government will take over all voice media, TV, and radio.

The tale follows a lone disc jockey (voiced by Stephen King) as he conducts his final broadcast before the faceless brutes shut him down. The story is told through his spoken tirades and sermons as well as through the songs by his favorite band, Hierophant, which is essentially Shooter Jennings and band channeling whatever styles seem to suit them.

This album most likely horrified fans of his earlier work, as the music contained on Black Ribbons is a multi-headed beast. Taking some of the country flavored rock he has always presented and incorporating elements of nu-metal, industrial, folk, and alternative.

Stephen King does his best to channel his inner DJ, not a difficult task considering he owned his own radio station for some time, and he knows his music. His role is solid and well-played, and makes the album a more enjoyable experience.

Also of note, the packaging for this particular album is among the coolest I have ever seen, every bit as darkly gorgeous as the music within. A masterpiece that will sadly smolder unrecognized for years until someone discovers it and proclaims loudly from the hilltops what it is: A dystopian prophecy, a 1984 for 2011—or more actually, the sad truth.

Rocket Science Ventures | 2010 | 20 tracks (71:33) | File Under: Indie Folk Fusion

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