Duuude, Tapes! Witchstone, Tales of the Riff Riders


Calgary stoner four-piece Witchstone make no attempt to steer listeners away from their riffy mindset. Their self-released debut full-length, Tales of the Riff Riders, is a four-song cassette that offers front-to-back groove and fuzz, diving headfirst into the Sabbath-and-Sleep school of stoner rock for extended cuts like “Riff Riders Part 1,” “Riff Riders Part 2,” which together make up the 22 minutes of the album’s first half. It’s charming stuff, if familiar. The compressed distortion suits the tape format as well as the translucent purple of the cassette itself suits the band’s aesthetic, and though their approach is straightforward in its way, Witchstone — guitarist/vocalist Sean Edwards, bassist/vocalist Andrew Sanderson, guitarist Ian Lemke and drummer Marcello Castronuovo — have plenty of room in their jams for establishing a sense of personality. That comes through as well on side two’s “Boson Raiders,” an instrumental that’s also the only song here under 10 minutes long, and the concluding “DeepSpace PathFinder,” which uses all of its 16:31 to unfold Witchstone‘s grandest included jam.

witchstone-tales-of-the-riff-riders-caseToss in some caveman howls and cleaner vocal tradeoffs between Edwards and Sanderson, some tempo shifts, quiet-to-loud changes and you probably get a decent idea of where Witchstone are coming from, but nothing about Tales of the Riff Riders comes across as shooting for innovation. They’re preaching to the converted, in a sense, and going for a quality nod — which they get almost immediately — rather than something that’s going to reinvent the genre around them. I have no problem with that whatsoever. “Riff Riders Part 1” (11:06) moves at a languid but steady roll and sets a forward momentum of lurching groove that lives up to the track’s title. Let there be no doubt they’re riding that riff. Castronuovo gives hints of technical prowess in tight snare fills as “Riff Riders Part 1” marches toward its midsection break, which leads to an instrumental jam that previews more Wurlitzer inclusion on the finale and leads not quite directly into the no-less-weedian intro of “Riff Riders Part 2” (10:21). That they’d go to silence between one and the other is curious, since it’s a two-parter, but on tape it feeds directly anyway, and if Witchstone haven’t made their point by the time “Riff Riders Part 1” is done, then it’s not going to matter.

Tales of the Riff Riders follows Witchstone‘s 2012 self-titled debut EP, and as it’s their first long-player, I’d probably be inclined to give them leeway anyhow, but their kind of repetitive jam-out really doesn’t require it. They’re doing what they’re doing. It’s a stoner band jamming out stoner grooves for stoner heads — none of which actually requires drug use, if you were wondering — and as “Riff Riders Part 2” unfolds, cleaner vocals into a faster instrumental movement, the first half setting up the run in the second, a slowdown and some echoing shouts leading to the big finish, it’s so much more satisfying to just go with it than to try and analyze the band’s moves that I feel like I’m cheapening the experience even talking about it. I doubt that, if it’s the first stoner rock record you’ve ever heard, you’re going to put on Tales of the Riff Riders and go, “Oh wow, now I get it!” but if you’re in the genre and know where Witchstone are coming from, then these songs are like a comfortable t-shirt you can put witchstoneon and immediately feel at home. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

By the time they get around to the noisy beginnings of “Boson Raiders” after a quick side flip, some vocal effects and added percussion add further character to the proceedings without deviating in mood from the spirit of the two-parter back on side A, and the rolling instrumental groove that emerges is well in league with what’s still to come on “DeepSpace PathFinder” as well, the closer crashing in on a bassline from Sanderson that, along with Castronuovo‘s drums, is the foundation for Tales of the Riff Riders‘ best linear build. The Wurlitzer returns to add atmosphere along with Lemke and Edwards‘ guitars, and vocals arrive shortly before three and a half minutes in, rawer and jarringly forward in the mix, either dual shouts or just dually layered, breaking eventually into a heavy psych-style lead (actually, that might be a cordless drill run through effects pedals), another verse and the solo-topped apex. To Witchstone‘s credit, they probably could’ve ended “DeepSpace PathFinder” on the feedback that takes hold 11 minutes in and had another groove in their pocket like “Riff Riders” one and two, but instead they push forward with a smooth, almost sleazy Sabbath-bred jam, giving one last immersive moment before a sustained rumble and hum leads the way out.

There’s a lot about Tales of the Riff Riders that’s familiar, but between the swing in Castronuovo‘s drums, the righteousness from the guitars and tonal warmth in Sanderson‘s bass, there’s also a lot to dig into. They’re not asking a lot from their audience, and in return, they’re delivering a solid showing of genre with a weird-enough sensibility to pieces here and there to give some hint as to how Witchstone could stand out from the pack down the line. No complaints.

Witchstone, Tales of the Riff Riders (2014)

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