All Them Witches, Lightning at the Door: Birth of Coyotes

all them witches lightning at the door

Nashville four-piece All Them Witches released their second album, Lightning at the Door, last November via Bandcamp. No promotion to speak of other than a posted link, no real advance warning, just there it was. The record’s 45 minutes became something of an underground sensation, word of mouth and type of finger alike singing the praises of All Them Witches‘ original take on psychedelic blues, heavy riffing and stylized soul. Myself included. Lightning at the Door, which followed an earlier-2013 issue of their debut offering, Our Mother Electricity (review here), that made them the first American band to have their music released via Elektrohasch Schallplatten, was easily among last year’s highlight releases, and it warrants and deserves the physical pressing and proper “official” release the band has now given it. It is a stunning work in its clarity of aesthetic and in its songcraft, resulting in eight memorable tracks each distinguished by one part or another but all feeding into a complete, overarching whole that’s immersive, sprawling and the influence of which has already begun to be felt and, one suspects, will continue to be felt for some time. Reveling in both the individual contributions of guitarist Ben McLeod, bassist/vocalist Michael Parks, Jr., drummer Robby Staebler and Fender Rhodes specialist Allan Van Cleave and the chemistry between all of them, Lightning at the Door satisfies in its progressive sensibility and its atmosphere even as it sounds humble, raw and working directly in opposition to self-indulgent impulses. This sounds like hyperbole, but let it stand that whatever they do next — a 25-minute single-song jam called “Effervescent” (review here) has been issued since — to call it a landmark does not at this point feel like an overstatement.

A brooding feel pervades, and some of Lightning at the Door‘s most effective moments are in its quieter, ambient reaches, beginning with the walk-into-water intro to opener “Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird,” volume swells of guitar feedback shifting smoothly into warm, natural-sounding fuzz given melodic breadth by Van Cleave‘s keys — it feels like cheating to review the album after seeing the band live and witnessing first-hand how utterly essential he is to what All Them Witches do — and boogie by Staebler‘s ever-ready snare shuffle. “Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird” unfolds smoothly, patiently, Parks‘ vocals arriving in the second half to introduce a surreal lyrical quirk that will serve as a uniting theme in the material throughout. “When God Comes Back” ignites heavier boogie while still saving the thickest tones for “Swallowed by the Sea,” the album’s longest cut at 8:23 and the end of side A after “When God Comes Back”‘s bluesy thrust shifts into airy psychedelic rock, twisting rhythms remaining surefooted amid memorable howls of guitar and voice and further bizarre proclamations, Songs for the Deaf-worthy lead compression standing out in the final reach en route to the moodier, harmonica-inclusive “The Marriage of Coyote Woman,” bass and Rhodes coming to the fore as the repeated lines, “I never met a salesman like you before/Lions of the world just ripping us apart,” serving as the spoken frame for a fluid, laid-back jam that molds its way into and out of dynamic apexes, finishing quiet as through-a-can twang vocals and lightly-plucked guitar start “Swallowed by the Sea.” For its scope more than its length, “Swallowed by the Sea” is a remarkable singular accomplishment, building from its minimal beginning to a swaying, riff-led progression, McLeod‘s molasses tone arriving at 1:57 to jar the listener out of sweet hypnosis and into righteous heavy groove that morphs for the next minute or so before receding into another graceful jam, the exploratory feel of which is no less engaging than was the hook of “The Marriage of Coyote Woman” or “Charles William,” which follows as the opener of side B.

all them witches (Photo by Giles Clement)

The album makes a certain kind of sense with the vinyl sides split, and seems to have been structured with that in mind, but I won’t discount its linear value either. As someone who became a fan of it by streaming and who purchased one of the sleeve CD copies the band pressed before this digipak/LP re-release, I’ve spent far more time considering Lightning at the Door as a whole front-to-back work than as component parts either in the two halves of a vinyl or in its eight individual songs, and enjoy the process of getting lost in it that listening experience provides. Still, there’s a definite shift as the second portion branches out All Them Witches‘ approach, “Charles William” mirroring the subdued launch of “Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird” and its lyrical modus but solidifying around one of the record’s most memorable progressions, resounding with a triumph — once again, Parks‘ vocals and Van Cleave‘s keys offer melodic flourish to the propulsive rhythm in McLeod‘s guitar, Parks‘ bass and Staebler‘s drums — that serves as a high point of efficiency in their execution. Well then, time to jam out. “The Death of Coyote Woman” — you’ll recall she got married on side A — works around a start stop riff initially and emphasizes how much the band is the more than the sum of its players’ contributions, all four of them in their own space as they move forward into the jam, stopping after a minute in to brazenly cut the momentum short and begin a verse progression from the ground up that’s bound to disorient those hearing Lightning at the Door for the first time on vinyl (the old which-song-is-this-again factor) and which leads back into jamming not quite as motoring as the “intro” to “The Death of Coyote Woman” but which makes a steady home for itself in the feel-it-out space between the low and the high where most acts aren’t nearly so comfortable lingering and few manage to inhabit as well as All Them Witches without either losing themselves to boring repetition or moving on for the sake of an easier payoff. This is a band breaking the rules of the building progressions that so much of heavy psych is based around, and doing it with command and tones natural enough to carry listeners along paths of complex structure and range.

“Romany Dagger” is more or less an interlude at an instrumental 2:46, but it also serves to push stylistic boundaries, tapping into Wovenhand-style Eastern European minor-key-isms and rhythms while holding firm to the album’s mood, a quick fade bringing about the languid but still swinging drum intro to closer “Mountain,” a sort of spiritual successor in the vein of “Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird” and “Charles William” but longer than either of them at 6:17 and more patient than either, working to rather than against a linear build, McLeod peppering in lead layers atop Parks‘ steady bassline, the tense drumming of Staebler and Van Cleave‘s intermittent tones, used more for emphasis here but still very much a part of the track’s overall affect, even in the chorus, at which the song seems to arrive with a sense of reverence befitting the repeated line, “God bless our mother the mountain.” Just before the five-minute mark, a heavier riff emerges to bring “Mountain” to its peak and Lightning at the Door to its somewhat abbreviated but crashing finale, ending with a ringout that feels understated considering the journey preceding. That lack of pretense is one of Lightning at the Door‘s defining characteristics and one of its great strengths. The album has already met with success in raising All Them Witches‘ profile — they’re beginning to make a statement as a touring act as well, having just finished a round of dates with Windhand — but more crucially, it signifies the individualized approach coming to the fore from these players and serves notice of their potential to continue to build on it, much as it builds on Our Mother Electricity. Again, whatever they do next, whatever changes are bound to take place, wherever they go and wherever they take their sound along the way, Lightning at the Door will remain a special moment, the urgency in the creation of which bleeds through its every measure.

All Them Witches, Lightning at the Door (2013/2014)

All Them Witches on Thee Facebooks

All Them Witches BigCartel store

All Them Witches on Bandcamp

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