If you have any doubt that cred-heavy Portland doomers Witch Mountain put a ton of thought into what they do, just look at the title of their third album, Cauldron of the Wild. Their first for Profound Lore following a CD issue of last year’s excellent South of Salem, the album’s pun-tacular name encapsulates the two sides of the band’s moniker perfectly – “cauldron” for “witch” and “the wild” for “mountain.” That kind of symmetry can be found in the foursome’s sound as well on the vinyl-ready 45-minute album, which balances blues and doom to varying measures and is comprised of six Billy Anderson-produced tracks. The songs themselves aren’t immediately memorable – that is, they’re not cloying at catchiness; the music is more patient than that – but after two or three listens, they begin to stay with you, over time proving more and more indispensable. South of Salem had a similar effect on repeat visits, and naturally with so little time passed and Anderson’s production in common, there are going to be a lot of similarities between the two albums, but Cauldron of the Wild is fuller in Rob Wrong’s guitar tone, more assured rhythmically, and powerful vocalist Uta Plotkin sounds more comfortable and more confident in her performance. Where on songs like “Plastic Cage” from the previous release, she followed the riff and matched her meter to bassist David Hoopaugh – since replaced by Neal Munson – and drummer Nathan Carson (interview here), here even more straightforward tracks like “Beekeeper” and “Veil of the Forgotten” find her veering some in cadence and setting her own course of melody. That level of development serves to underscore Plotkin’s remarkable talent vocally. She sounds trained, if she isn’t, and even though both of those songs (the two shortest on Cauldron of the Wild at 5:30 and 5:29, respectively) feature a kind of gurgling growl to offset her bluesier melodic approach – similar to that of “End Game” from the last album – that doesn’t take away at all from the force of her delivery, which I almost can’t help but compare to fellow Pacific Northwesters Heart.
Likewise, effectively arranged layering on mid-album highlight “Shelter” makes that song a standout on the tracklist, but it’s important to note that even more so than on South of Salem, the focus of Cauldron of the Wild isn’t solely the vocals. Wrong injects smoking “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” leads into opener “The Ballad of Lanky Rae,” emphasizing the song’s bluesy stomp – righteously punctuated by Carson’s hi-hat/snare and rumbled along by Munson’s bass – and his lumbering riff sets the tone for the varying balance of doom and blues that endures on the rest of the tracks as Plotkin fittingly toys with the tradition of blues balladry in the song’s lyrics. The tale of a girl who goes in search of her demon father and finds him raising hell in Hell is fairly emblematic of how Witch Mountain approaches blues in general, mining tropes and skillfully blending them with elements out of ye olde metal to create a brew almost entirely their own. “Beekeeper” retains some of that bluesiness, but is fuller in the guitar – Wrong even throws in a pinch-harmonic squeal or two – and Plotkin’s approach when she’s not growling the chorus is grander and decidedly more metal. Munson proves to adaptable to either side of the band, and for his first record with Witch Mountain, he fits remarkably well into the fold of Cauldron of the Wild, mostly following but not necessarily limited to Wrong’s guitar lines. He stands out more on the quieter, airier and more soulful parts, making each note of the weighted-down chorus of “Shelter” count double for its spareness. The layering Plotkin works into her vocals has already been mentioned, but it’s worth noting again that both in the earlier choruses and the faster second half of the song she’s reaching toward epic with markedly dangerous intent.
I’ve said a lot so far about the individual band members and what each has going on in the songs – Wrong’s doing this while Carson’s doing this, Plotkin’s hitting this high while Munson’s rumbling away behind – but something that works best about Cauldron of the Wild, especially as it relates to its predecessor, is that Witch Mountain are functioning almost entirely as a cohesive singular unit. Plotkin’s performance is featured, as one would have to expect given both the potency of her approach and a scarcity of comparison points in the genre, but more even than on South of Salem, Witch Mountain are a band here. As what might be a vinyl Side A wraps with the darker “Veil of the Forgotten,” it’s the collective that impresses as Plotkin nails a classically metal high with the line “Amethyst and bone” and Wrong answers immediately with a lead. Of all the material on Cauldron of the Wild, “Veil of the Forgotten” seems the doomiest musically – it’s just so gloriously miserable sounding – but “Aurelia,” which is the longest song on the album at 11:49 is even more despondent, and coming from a more emotional base lyrically. The mystical-sounding name is set against a mundane plot, the idea of “gotta get out of this town” come to a tragic head, but both “Aurelia” and “Never Know,” which follows to cloud out Cauldron of the Wild, are crafted of impeccable musical builds. Though his best runs of the album are still to come later in the song, Munson once again stands out on bass alongside Wrong’s quiet intro guitars, and Plotkin self-harmonizes (layers, chief) while Carson waits patiently for the heavy to come, crashing periodically as though to remind the listener that, indeed, it’s on its way. Plotkin is mixed high on “Aurelia,” as she is throughout the album, but the swaying woefulness of the riff isn’t at all deemphasized for it, she just cuts through more sharply. “Aurelia” is especially fascinating paired next to “Never Know,” which is more than a full two minutes shorter but structurally similar despite being marked by Cauldron of the Wild’s most righteous stylistic turn, namely back to the more full-on heavy blues style that “The Ballad of Lanky Rae” hinted at. Early into the song, when Plotkin sympathetically croons, “Oh baby, what’s your doom?” I feel a little bit like I’m being taken advantage of.
There’s a genuine catharsis later, when the heavier guitars kick in and another when Wrong launches into the payoff solo, Plotkin wailing a masterful lead-in. The repetition and progression of the lines, “Don’t know if you’re dead but I like it that way/’Cause I know if I knew don’t know what I’d do,” charts the progression of the music behind as well, becoming increasingly fervent each time, part of the overall build that leads to Cauldron of the Wild’s most satisfying culmination. A cold cut brings the album to its close, doom and blues long since having changed brains along the way, and what remains after the silence is the sense that Witch Mountain have earned the considerable hype they have received. Their songwriting stands them out of their genre, as does their singer, but the band’s identity isn’t relegated to the output of any single member, be it Plotkin, Wrong, Carson or Munson. Still, where I feel like so much critical appreciation – of which Witch Mountain have had plenty, including from myself – comes less from actually digging an album or being satisfied with what it accomplishes than betting on its future influence, I have a hard time imagining a league of other bands being able to pull off what Witch Mountain does on Cauldron of the Wild, so much of the whole being derived from, you guessed it, the sum of its parts. Never stopped bands from trying before, though, so maybe it won’t now either, but more importantly, Cauldron of the Wild sets its own terms and meets them. It is a firm display of growth from South of Salem – though if you told me the songs were written over the course of the same hiatus between 2001’s Come the Mountain and that album, I’d believe it – and an affirmation that the band are poised to leave a mark not only on the fertile Pacific Northwest underground, but the doom genre as a whole. I hope it works out, and if they keep up the prolific clip they’ve set for themselves between South of Salem and Cauldron of the Wild, I hope they keep the pace of stylistic growth as well. Doom on, doom forward.
Tags: Oregon, Portland, Profound Lore, Witch Mountain