Replete with allegorical Washington Irving imagery and some of the most enveloping drum sounds of the last ten years, Witch’s self-title debut seems set on continuing the fuzz-drenched, bellbottomed rock lineage created by Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. It’s no surprise that percussion dominates the aural foreground, though. After all, the man behind the kit — none other than Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis — is footing the bill for this record. First Josh “I was in Kyuss?” Homme grabs the throne in Eagles of Death Metal and now Dinosaur Jr. axe-man Mascis commandeers the skins in Witch. What’s next: Sleep/High on Fire mastermind Matt Pike on lead vocals, sans guitar? (Actually, that’s already happened, too. His new project, Kalas, was released by Tee Pee in April.)
Now, I have no qualms with multi-instrumentalists, by definition. Broadening your horizons is both liberating and cathartic, I suppose. Trepidation creeps in, however, when those who had made a career out of their virtuosic mastery of one instrument begin to usurp other duties. That isn’t to say the bespectacled Mascis is a poor timekeeper, although some of his fills leave something to be desired. And according to those that have seen Witch live, he’s no studio queen. In fact, according to the band’s bio, Mascis cut his teeth in 1980s hardcore outfit Deep Wound. That’s all well and good. But does that make for an endearing record? Not quite.
Vocalist Kyle Thomas’s warbled crooning suits the slower, more meandering tunes (“Seer” and the “Rip Van Winkle”), but it fails to gel with the more up-tempo instrumentations (“Soul of Fire”). And what’s with the gym-hall reverb on his voice? Guitar tones fair much better under engineer John Agnello (whose production credits include Early Man and Screaming Trees). Asa Irons’s leads soar with ceaseless sustain, and riff-laden interludes crunch mightily with just enough fuzz. Unfortunately, Dave Sweetapple’s bass is all but nonexistent (save “Black Saint”), thus further accentuating Mascis’s austere rhythms.
What does all this mean to the casual music fan? Invest in a reissue of Jeff Beck’s Truth. And in completely unrelated news, I recently read that Eddie Van Halen had given up the guitar (temporarily, I pray) and was proctoring an intense cello regimen. I shit thee not.
Witch on Tee Pee Records Web site (streaming audio)