All Them Witches earn immediate distinction for being the first American band signed to German heavy psych purveyors Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Endorsement from the label of Colour Haze guitarist/vocalist Stefan Koglek, which has released albums from My Sleeping Karma, Sungrazer, Rotor, Been Obscene and The Machine – essentially casting the blueprint by which a goodly portion of the up and coming European scene is built – goes a long way in my book, and the feat is even more impressive when one considers that the Nashville four-piece’s debut full-length, Our Mother Electricity (produced by the band with Andy Putnam), sounds so distinctly American. They’re not the first to use the wordplay, but in calling their approach “psychedelta rock,” neither are All Them Witches inaccurate. Swampy blues is definitely a major element in what they do, but along with that and the heavy psych aspect to their sound, there’s also a dynamic sense of Americana in the songwriting, taking hold either in the twang of centerpiece “Elk Blood Heart” or the countrified moaning and Skynyrd solo bursting out of closer “Right Hand.” Our Mother Electricity was originally released by the band last summer, and along with the bonus cut, the Elektrohasch version also boasts new artwork courtesy of Mat Bethancourt (Cherry Choke, ex-Josiah) and a new mastering job. Among the album’s central appeals is the fact that it never actually seems at rest, and through the 45-minute duration, All Them Witches show little interest in telegraphing their next move. To wit, the shift from eight-and-a-half-minute jam “Until it Unwinds” – the title perhaps referencing the tape on which the song was recorded – moving into the quiet, desert-hued soul of “Easy.” It’s just one of several complicated transitions All Them Witches pull off with what can only be called swagger, guitarist Ben McLeod and bassist Michael Parks trading vocal lines and frequently layering one voice on the other. On the album, the band is completed by drummer Robby Staebler and keyboardist Allan Van Cleave (Jason Staebler has since joined, presumably on second guitar), and in the natural, unfolding process of these tracks, no single contribution to the whole is inconsiderable. Vocals start opener “Heavy Like a Witch” sounding almost like a harmonica, and with a fuzzy guitar, the song is gradually introduced as a fitting opener for Our Mother Electricity in balancing heaviness and a rural sensibility.
As for comparison points, one can find pieces from Our Mother Electricity in the work of bands like Pennsylvania’s Pearls and Brass, who also proffer a sonic allegiance to blues rock, or in the heavy Southern prog builds that North Carolina’s Caltrop sometimes enact, but All Them Witches aren’t directly relatable to either of those acts, offsetting these with backwoods stomp and concurrent noisy crunch. Following an organ solo over chugging riffage, “Heavy Like a Witch” gives way to the more memorable “The Urn,” a standout of the album that stops around the line in its chorus, “I’ll put your ashes in an urn.” This and the following “Bloodhounds” are the shortest tracks on the album at around 3:30, but both still have time to develop a progression of their own, the former delving into slide guitar grooving à la Clutch’s blues fetishizing – the lyrics more assuring that threatening as the line noted above might suggest – and the latter driven forward by Staebler’s snare and a funky guitar wail quick to solo and answer its own leads with start-stop verse grooving. The riff is simple and effective, and Parks fills out the low end excellently, foreshadowing the distorted shouts that arise to announce the fuller apex of the track, also topped by a guitar solo. In the last 15 or so seconds of the song, they bring back the start-stop groove of the verse and it’s as swift and righteous as turn as I’ve heard yet this year – more so as it leads to the moodier “Guns,” which is pushed along at a deceptively quick pace by a quieter low end line and subdued initial vocal. For the second verse, whispers join the central line reminding of some of Queens of the Stone Age’s vocal arrangements, but there’s a build at work too as the lead guitar line feeds back over the blues jamming midpoint and the vocals take a more active approach. The established rolling groove ends and “Guns” caps with a faster stoner riff from McLeod that the drums make individual, and “Elk Blood Heart” takes hold to begin its own build – the best of the album – from the boldest of starting points: bare silence.
I don’t know where the sides break on the vinyl version of Our Mother Electricity (given the length of “Until it Unwinds,” which follows, I’d imagine “Elk Blood Heart” ends side A), but on the CD, “Elk Blood Heart” makes a tremendous centerpiece. Also the title cut of a prior EP, its oft-repeated chorus gives a sense of arrival to the verse and stands out vocally and instrumentally, ethereal guitars backing the general build and staying consistent even as the rest of the music drops and the vocals recite the chorus as a break before what seems like the coming payoff. It’s delayed, that payoff. Just when it seems like All Them Witches are about to really let it loose, after that semi-stop, they show restraint in both the vocals and the music. The song gets louder, but isn’t yet at its peak. Buzzsaw guitar fuzz emerges in front of the now-hypnotic chorus and it’s not until there’s a minute left in the song that the melody of the vocal lines changes to announce the peak of the track before the solo swallows the singing and everything else in its path, the lyrics reemerging from the momentary fray just in time for a last round – as if to say, “Get this stuck in your head” – before “Until it Unwinds” begins its percussive, shuffling run, the guitars taking a backseat to the organ, drums and bass, perhaps recovering from the strain they put on themselves with “Elk Blood Heart.” Space-echoing vocals kick in past the minute mark and the guitars arrive in kind, lead lines rising, falling, coming in and going out again, but “Until it Unwinds” is long and has time for a patient approach, however insistent Staebler’s drumming might be. A chorus is more yelled than sang, and though chaotic, the track remains immersive because of the consistency in Parks’ bassline, which keeps its hold even as a crashing build gives way to the long, mostly instrumental (there are some backwards lines and they return to the chorus once) jam that follows. Van Cleave’s keys are prominent in the mix but not necessarily a driving force so much as another factor in the wash of the jam along with the guitar, and when “Until it Unwinds” does finally unwind, it does so with a smooth transition into the quieter, “Easy,” typified by the far-back echo of the guitar and the Sungrazer-style delivery of the lines, “How you shake it/How you shake it so easily/How you drift/How you drift so slow.”
Even here, All Them Witches don’t quite let go of the grit that propels much of the material on the album, but “Easy” proves they’re just as suited to quiet jamming as to cacophonous psychedelia, to sweet melody as much as driving rhythm. Where “Guns” got loud, “Easy” stays quiet, softer lead guitar staying in the background while the keys come to the fore – the mix, by Joe Funderburk (Hank III, Silver Jews, many others), is at its most righteous toward the end of “Guns” – and when the acoustic plucking of “Family Song for the Leaving” comes on, the mood changes from quiet and a little lusty to contemplative and folkish, slide guitar (pedal steel?) backing the soft plucks and a bare, drawling vocal announcing in the Dylan-esque third verse, “Come all you Christians and lay down your blood/Feeling poor no backs to break no love here to find,” before returning to the simple, memorable chorus of “Trouble comin’ for me,” less a hook than an earthy, traditional refrain. Fitting, then, that ensuing closer “Right Hand” should revive the melodic moans that started the album as part of its own movement, the drums returning, quietly at first, before the song gradually, patiently picks itself up. The second half of the album (after “Elk Blood Heart”) has been the more patient, more psychedelic and farther ranging, but that’s not to take away from the heavy rock bounce of the initial tracks, which “Right Hand” also partially reprises, though the mood is substantially less frantic, less arrogant, even as the aforementioned layered guitar solo commences and then drops out. If you want to put a narrative to it, you might say All Them Witches come out of Our Mother Electricity a different band than they went in, and where one might expect a rousing crescendo for “Right Hand,” the song does pick up, but never claims to be speaking for anything more than itself. Thus the record ends with comparatively little fanfare but no less accomplished solo work than McLeod has presented throughout, the full-length stylistic run capping with surprising humility. It works, though. Probably better than had All Them Witches chosen to end with, say, “Until it Unwinds,” and more surprising than how they top the record is the creative breadth they show throughout it. Our Mother Electricity is a bold, at times stunning, debut, and All Them Witches impress in both their cohesiveness of sound and their obvious drive toward an individual approach. For its intricate balance of influence and for the band’s brazen willingness to play in the dirty end of rock and roll, it earns the Elektrohasch logo with which it’s stamped.
Tags: All Them Witches, All Them Witches Our Mother Electricity, Elektrohasch Schallplatten, Nashville, Our Mother Electricity, Tennessee