[Click play above to stream ‘Mountain of the Devil’s Witch’ from Devil’s Witches’ debut album, Velvet Magic, out March 20 on Cursed Tongue Records.]
“Standing on the top of a mountain/I bet you feel totally far out now.” These quick opening lines begin to give the setting in which Velvet Magic, the Cursed Tongue Records debut LP from garage cult rockers Devil’s Witches, plays out the course of its 41 minutes. We are in Vietnam — or we end up there, ultimately — and it is the late ’60s. People are dying. The horrors of war, murder, sexual exploitation, drug culture and various other brain-addling traumas are taking place all around, and Devil’s Witches are on hand to tell a story that incorporates all of them. The band who, in the tradition of Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats are noteworthy for the amount of information withheld from the public — no lineup, no photos, no place of origin, no details on how they got together, etc.; just music and softcore retro pornography for a social media presence — are hardly the first to bathe in these troubled and troubling waters.
From Dracula to Apocalypse Now to Game of Thrones, lines have been crossed between sex and violence and murder for as long as humans have known what lines are, and honestly, probably longer. Doesn’t make it politically correct — and looking at the Branca Studio cover art for Velvet Magic, it should be pretty apparent that we’re a ways off from that — but doesn’t mean the narrative can’t be art, either. And much to their credit, whoever they are, Devil’s Witches are embarking on a narrative with these nine songs, adding a core of ambition and intent to the record by drawing the listener deeper into an increasingly dark, heroin chaos in terms of story while establishing a sound that draws on classic psychedelia and modern doom and offers quality songcraft and lyrical intrigue in kind.
Lyrics, obviously, are a point of focus, since they’re what draws Velvet Magic together — the title-line finally delivered in the penultimate title-track, and then again, in French, in closer “Requiem pour un Vampire” — but while it’s probably fair to call it nascent, Devil’s Witches have a depth to their approach that goes beyond storytelling as well. Opener “Apache Snow” announces its arrival with a thickly-fuzzed riff set to a slow-rolling progression of drums (or drum machine) and even-thicker bassline, and while these elements are generally more doom than rock, Devil’s Witches bring them to a psychedelic vibe with languid, drawling vocals that become as consistent a theme as Vietnam itself throughout subsequent tracks, whether that’s the shorter and straightforward hook “Motorpsycho” or side B’s “Mountain of the Devil’s Witch,” which offsets its more grueling motion with a classic organ solo in a retro/current blend that comes through clearly thanks in part to a mastering job by Mos Generator‘s Tony Reed.
The early cuts — “Apache Snow,” “Motorpsycho,” “Black Cauldron” and the entrancing instrumental “Pornodelic Opium Dreams” (which serves as a better description for Velvet Magic on an aesthetic level than anything I’m likely to come up with) — set up this duality of approach, and while I don’t know how many people are actually in the band and it could be anywhere from one to five given the fullness of sound in the album’s layers of guitar, bass, drums, keys and vocals, Devil’s Witches underscore the narrative movement of the tracks with a corresponding instrumental push into even darker, more threatening fare, beginning a sinister turn after “Pornodelic Opium Dreams” with the centerpiece “Voodoo Woman.”
Not that any point prior has been lacking in low end, but the organ-led five-minute hypnodrift of “Pornodelic Opium Dreams” seems especially well placed in making “Voodoo Woman” come across as all the more sinister in its darker turn. Guitar leads the way with rumble underscoring, and with flourish of toy piano, Devil’s Witches push into more driven riffing and a winding rhythm that’s faster and effective in conveying the decaying mental state of our unnamed protagonist. There’s still a hook, naturally, and a corresponding structure to support it, but “Voodoo Woman” represents a shift for Velvet Magic, and that continues on “Mountain of the Devil’s Witch,” which is the longest inclusion at seven minutes flat and arguably the outing’s bleakest moment. It finds its way into a doomly nod and, like “Voodoo Woman,” offsets it with a tinge of thickened metal, but picks up in its chorus all the same with the first of several sharp tempo changes that drops back for the next verse only to thrust forward again, and so on.
After its halfway point, “Mountain of the Devil’s Witch” finds itself in an instrumental stretch with more swing to its groove, and that serves as a fitting transition into the interlude “Jupiter Kush,” a wah-drenched brief two-and-a-half-minutes that devolves into noise before the title-cut kicks in, immediately mad with chugging but headed somewhere sweeter if still out-of-mind in its chorus — “My love my dove gold is your favorite color/My heart is black so we are perfect together” — as we seem to have hit the point where the character is disintegrating into a psychotropic ether of sex and the cosmic. A telling moment is the section of lead guitar in the second half, which toys with pop-psychedelia in a way that much of Velvet Magic has avoided, but where “Mountain of the Devil’s Witch” drifted out with no return, Devil’s Witches draw “Velvet Magic” back for a final verse and chorus, highlighting the sense of craft at work beneath the story all along.
At a little over three minutes, “Requiem pour un Vampire” feels as much an epilogue as a distinct inclusion, answering some of the atmosphere of “Pornodelic Opium Dreams” and “Jupiter Kush” in its subdued and almost playful spirit of organ and guitar bounce amid its delivered-in-French lyrics. The title comes from a 1971 Jean Rollin exploitation horror flick, as if the vibe wasn’t thick enough throughout, and how it relates directly to the story being told on Velvet Magic, I don’t know, but at very least it’s not musically out of place, and it may be intended as a bonus or hidden track for the LP. Either way, it’s one last bit of nuance from Devil’s Witches‘ whose debut full-length successfully lives up to its narrative intentions without losing sight of the need to still make its individual songs stand out on their own as well as serve the entire, overarching flow.
That’s a rare enough feat for more experienced acts, let alone a first album, and it will be interesting to see how much storytelling remains a part of the band’s approach. Almost invariably, the mystique around bands of their ilk fades away — names are included over time, origins unveiled, etc. — but in their thoughtful execution of these tracks, Devil’s Witch demonstrate the backbone of aesthetic to stand up even after the world finds out who they are.