Nashville four-piece All Them Witches seem to have very quickly become one of the American heavy rock underground’s most crucial up and coming acts. This is not an accident, and it is not coincidence. Their stylish and sincere blend of heavy blues, wistful psych jamming and tasteful, adventurous songwriting has developed into a highly individualized approach marked out by fluid chemistry and emotional as well as sonic weight. The band’s third album, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, builds on a foundation of memorable, varied songcraft and finds their circumstances much changed. Example? When All Them Witches released their second full-length, Lightning at the Door (review here), in 2013, it was digital-only, put up through their Bandcamp and accompanied by a handful of shows as they began to branch out beyond playing locally.
In the course of the last two years, they’ve become a touring act on opening and headlining runs, released that album physically on vinyl and CD — both sold out — played Bonnaroo and signed to New West Records. One might expect as a result of this that Dying Surfer Meets His Maker would arrive with a commercial sheen, a more polished version of the easy-flowing vibes they cast on Lightning at the Door, the preceding 2012 full-length debut, Our Mother Electricity (review here), and/or tossed-off EPs like 2015’s 4/20 celebration, A Sweet Release (review here), or last year’s 25-minute instrumental jam Effervescent (review here), which though it was originally intended to be digital-only earned enough of a response to warrant a vinyl pressing. Watering down their sound would be one way to go. All Them Witches are going the other way, getting both more intimate and more expansive, and Dying Surfer Meets His Maker proves to be their most natural-feeling album yet.
A goodly portion of it is jams, and its primary impression is a mellow, melancholic soul, captured organically through the production of Mikey Allred (Across Tundras) in what sound like at-least-partially live-recorded tracks that, in the case of cuts like “El Centro,” “This is Where it Falls Apart” and “Instrumental 2 (Welcome to the Caveman Future),” hone the feeling not only of All Them Witches — bassist/vocalist Michael Parks, Jr., guitarist Ben McLeod, Fender Rhodes-ist/violinist Allan Van Cleave and drummer Rob Staebler — jamming out, but of picking up their instruments and actually nestling into their parts. Front to back, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker‘s nine tracks/46 minutes invite the listener into the room with the band while these songs are being made, count-ins, stick-clicks, warts and all.
One gets the sense in listening that, any other week, it would be a completely different record, but these were the songs that came together when they did, and it just happens to be a performance that emphasizes the chemistry that has grown between these players, all of whom deliver huge without coming across as overdoing it at all, and the unpressured spirit that flies in the face of this being potentially their breakout moment. There’s no tonal blowup à la “Swallowed by the Sea,” they’re not playing to any expectation on the part of their audience and they’re not trying to bash listeners over the head with hooks, but the material sinks deep into the consciousness. Not that “Dirt Preachers” isn’t catchy or doesn’t tear things up prior to its second-half slowdown, and not that side B’s “Talisman” doesn’t have its psychedelic build, but from the soft acoustics and quiet vocals that begin “Call Me Star,” All Them Witches seem most concerned with creating an immersive atmosphere. As each half of the record plays out almost with a feel of its own, “Call Me Star” and “Dirt Preachers” conversing lyrically while “Open Passageways,” “Talisman” and closer “Blood and Sand – Milk and Endless Waters” feed into ideas of religion and ritual. Each side ends with a jam topped with spoken word — “This is Where it Falls Apart” and “Blood and Sand – Milk and Endless Waters,” respectively — and it is a more complete and realized offering than would have been fair to anticipate.
Most importantly, it is entirely their own. All Them Witches has worked hard the last several years to open their listeners’ minds to a variety of feels (meant in the sense of sonic atmosphere, not internet lingo for “feelings,” though those too, I suppose) to a degree where I wouldn’t necessarily expect Dying Surfer Meets His Maker to speak to what they might do next anymore than it seemed like Lightning at the Door was setting up a single-minded progression — though I’ll allow that “This is Where it Falls Apart” could easily have been born of a jam that opened into “The Marriage of Coyote Woman” from the last album, harmonica and all. That work pays off here, because no matter where they seem to take the songs, from the humble beginnings of “Call Me Star” into thickened shuffle of the eight-minute “El Centro,” which follows, and through to “Mellowing” as a serene, hypnotic lead-in for the acoustic-centered “Open Passageways” — which in many ways is Dying Surfer Meets His Maker‘s defining piece, melding an instrumental and vocal resonance that’s as much pop as it isn’t while remaining within All Them Witches‘ contextual flow — they never misstep.
As they toy with layering, harmonies and structure on “Talisman,” Parks shining vocally early — the solidification of his approach as a singer and the confidence in his delivery is a boon throughout — to set up one of McLeod‘s finest leads, they’ve already established such a broad range that, wherever they want to go, it makes sense. That is a great strength shown gracefully and fluidly, but it would fall flat without the songwriting and performance behind it, as once more each member of the band proves utterly crucial to the construction of the whole, whether it’s van Cleave‘s strings alongside the acoustic guitars on “Open Passageways” or the way Staebler‘s drums seem to bring “El Centro” to life while stepping back on “Blood and Sand – Milk and Endless Waters” to complement the rumbling bass and patient closing roll. There is no minute-to-minute stretch at which Dying Surfer Meets His Maker isn’t a joy, whether it’s the sweet melody of “Call Me Star” or the ambience as “Instrumental 2 (Welcome to the Caveman Future)” gives way to silence to let the vocals open “Talisman,” but the truly affecting experience is the record taken in its entirety. Like the band itself, it is an accomplishment beyond its component parts, individually impressive as those might be and are. The bottom line is it’s hands down one of 2015’s best, and even as All Them Witches once more shirk expectation, they exceed it.