All Them Witches, ATW: When the Process of Becoming Becomes the Process

all them witches atw

It’s been a quick turnaround to get All Them Witches to their fifth album. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the four-piece have barely held still since the release of their 2012 debut, Our Mother Electricity (review here), issuing what would become a landmark in their second album, 2013’s Lightning at the Door (review here), and then becoming a touring band, signing to New West Records and continuing to press forward to bigger rooms, longer tours and an ever-present slew of digital one-off EP — the latest of which, the Lost and Found EP (review here), arrived earlier this year — singles, live recordings, and so on. Following up 2015’s predominantly mellow and melancholy Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (review here), the band broke with their LP-per-year tradition and released their fourth full-length in last year’s Sleeping Through the War (review here). Though signature elements have been retained — the restless drumming of Robby Staebler, the bluesy jams led by guitarist Ben McLeod, the strong use of Rhodes piano and other keys, the creative basslines and increasingly confident vocals of Charles Michael Parks, Jr. — no two All Them Witches records have sounded alike, and Sleeping Through the War was again a departure.

Produced by Dave Cobb, it was an elaborate production involving background singers, guest instrumentation, and a broader scope than anything the band had yet produced. In their fifth long-player, the 56-minute ATW, they have offered a willful contradiction. McLeod takes the helm as producer — Grant Husselman recorded and Rob Schnapf mixed — and the eight resultant tracks are a distinct pivot toward a more stripped-down, naturalist approach. They eschew choral vibes in favor of the raw boogie of “Fishbelly 86 Onions,” launching the album with a couple telling seconds of show’s-about-to-start noise before kicking into the song itself. Indeed, most of what follows, from the winding turns of “1st vs. 2nd” into the dreamy and jammy reaches of the closing salvo “Harvest Feast,” “HTJC” and “Rob’s Dream,” feels built for the stage, whether it’s uptempo and relatively straightforward like “Half-Tongue” or the memorable and Western-slide-tinged second track “Workhorse,” All Them Witches still manage to cast a varied atmospheric impression while pulling the arrangements back to ground.

No doubt at least a portion of the credit — a fourth, maybe? — for that goes to new keyboardist Jonathan Draper, who here steps into the role formerly occupied by Allan Van Cleave. Those are not minor shoes to fill. In addition to having been a founding member, Van Cleave‘s Rhodes melodies added to the dreamy psychedelic stretches of All Them Witches‘ jams and made their blues all the more resonant. Even more to his credit, Draper lives up to the task, and from the wildman organ in “Fishbelly 86 Onions” and the subtle background tone of “Workhorse,” he makes his presence felt as an essential component alongside Parks, McLeod and Staebler in a fashion that makes the familiar aspect his own. The personality in his playing can be heard in “Half-Tongue” and the post-midsection sprawl of “Harvest Feast,” which tops 11 minutes and follows the moody highlight “Diamond” in order to lead into the back end of the record, and though there’s a sense of his integration still being in-process — that is, one gets the feeling that he’ll have even more to say in the arrangements next time around — he steps into a collection of tracks that stand on the strength of their songwriting and performance and plays a crucial role in letting them do just that.

all them witches

From everyone in the band, there’s a gleeful sense of defiance here. All Them Witches have always enjoyed contradiction — Lightning at the Door was heavy, so Dying Surfer Meets His Maker wasn’t, etc. — but ATW might be their most purposeful one to-date. It is the band reclaiming their identity. No coincidence McLeod is producer on it. After their more elaborate production to-date, they’re keeping it in-house, holding firm to the approach that’s gotten them to where they are and, through these songs, making a statement of what they want to be as a band and how they want their material to function. Granted, that’s an awful lot of narrative to read into it, and it’s not like they have a song called “We’re All Them Witches and You Can Kiss Our Collective Ass” or anything like that, but through the focus on their performance and the sheer will with which they execute “1st vs. 2nd,” “Diamond,” the experimental-feeling “HTJC” — which for much of its run is just Parks‘ vocals in folkish form backed by bass and a gradual, acoustic-laced build — it’s not a stretch to hear that All Them Witches, either consciously or not, are doing the work of regrounding themselves, reaffirming their methods and their desire to play not just in a certain style or styles, but however they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was hired to write the bio for the album and spoke to Parks as a part of that process about the songwriting and recording process. But even so, in listening, I keep going back to “Fishbelly 86 Onions.” It’s not like anything else the band brings to ATW, and inarguably their most active moment on the record. As the opener, it’s also an outlier, but in the howl leading into Draper‘s organ solo before the song hits the two-minute mark, there’s so much revelry in the spirit of the track that it’s almost like a breaking out. They’ve busted through whatever confines they were in and are running full sprint toward, what, themselves? I don’t know, but hearing Parks count from one to 20 as part of the lyrics, the fuzz in McLeod‘s guitar and the jazzy swing in Staebler‘s cymbals, there’s a torrential feeling of chaosmaking that’s just so much fun-as-a-statement that it affects everything that follows. The rim-ticks of “Workhorse,” the aggression at root in “1st vs. 2nd,” the storytelling in “Half-Tongue,” the progressive tension in “Diamond,” bluesy range of “Harvest Feast,” glorious wash in the payoff of “HTJC” and meld of psychedelia and classic heavy rocking starts and stops in “Rob’s Dream” — they all seem to draw from the plentiful energetic well of “Fishbelly 86 Onions,” and there’s enough left by the final moments of “Rob’s Dream” that All Them Witches jam their way through an upbeat payoff that finds all four members of the band at the height of their powers, still not overstated, but playing through with the deceptive class and chemistry that, as much as anything else, has become a hallmark of their sound.

Even unto its title, ATW is indicative of the intent on the part of the band to stake their claim on who they are. And it’s not even a full self-titled. It’s the acronym. Nothing extra, nothing more than it wants to be. Of course, they’re still a deeply nuanced band as they’ve always been, and there’s growth in their craft and in their performance, as there’s always been, but that’s all part of what makes All Them Witches who they are. I don’t know whether McLeod will produce their sixth offering or if they’ll once again look to someone outside themselves, if that record will expand on what’s here or draw even further back. One thing it’s never been safe to do is predict where All Them Witches will end up, because while they’ve never stopped moving forward, that “forward” is a path that seems likewise to veer in multiple directions at once. The passion that drives them is not only evident in ATW but key to the album’s overall success, and it’s refreshing to hear a band who, five records deep into their tenure, can sound both mature as a unit and like they’re still only beginning their exploration.

All Them Witches, “Diamond” official video

All Them Witches on Thee Facebooks

All Them Witches on Bandcamp

All Them Witches on Instagram

New West Records website

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5 Responses to “All Them Witches, ATW: When the Process of Becoming Becomes the Process”

  1. Ed says:

    After hearing Fishbelly 86 Onions and Diamond I don’t have very high hopes for this album. Hopefully those aren’t not the best tracks on the album.

  2. Jerome says:

    Sorry Ed, but Diamond is a masterpiece!

    • Vince Perri says:

      I agree Diamond and Fishbelly 86 are absolutely awesome !! I think I will like this album better than the last one and hope it is as awesome as Dying and the early albums ! Long live ATW !!!!!!

  3. MadVinyl says:

    I never really got into the previous album (sounded too much like a generic rock record to me with not much variation) but I loved the 3 before that. With Allan leaving I thought this might be the end of my interest in the band sadly. What I’ve heard here tho has rekindled the feelings I once had for this band. Taking the production back in house sounds like a good move and based on what I’ve heard I’ll be making a purchase.

  4. Brian says:

    All Them Witches records usually take a few listens for me to absorb it all, but they usually end up near the top of my best of the year list. This one reminds me a lot of Dying Surfer, a little more laid back and mellow. Digging it, can’t wait to catch them live where they really shine.

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