Friday Full-Length: All Them Witches, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker

It would be hard to have a discussion about the most influential bands of the last decade in underground heavy and ignore All Them Witches. You’ll pardon me if I don’t try. The Nashville-based four-piece issued the quizzically-titled Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (review here) on Oct. 30, 2015, as a twice-over pivotal moment for group. First, it was their label-debut on New West Records, to which they signed earlier in 2015 as they began to make higher-profile appearances at fests like Bonnaroo and others, giving them an opportunity to reach a broader audience. Second, while they’d had the limited A Sweet Release EP (review here) out earlier that year and regularly put other odds and ends on their Bandcamp, as well as live shows for a minute there, the nine-song/47-minute Dying Surfer Meets His Maker was the proper follow-up to their self-released 2013 sophomore LP, Lightning at the Door (review here), which was already regarded as a landmark by the time the next album showed up, also marking the point at which they became a touring band.

Those two factors aren’t to be understated, neither is how All Them Witches met the moment. Even more than Lightning at the Door did coming off the band’s debut — 2012’s Our Mother Electricity (review here), which was released in 2013 through Elektrohasch as All Them Witches became the first American act on the label run by Stefan Koglek of Colour Haze — Dying Surfer Meets His Maker seemed to actively work against expectation. At a point when the four-piece — bassist/vocalist Charles Michael Parks, Jr., guitarist Ben McLeod, Rhodes-ist/violinist Allan Van Cleave and drummer Robby Staebler — could have shifted their approach with a direct eye toward growing their listener base, which they ended up doing anyhow, they dug in. Dying Surfer puts its emphasis on fluidity, on a whole-album presentation, on instrumentalism. Consider “El Centro” emerging from the subdued acoustic-begun opener “Call Me Star.” It wasn’t the first time they put a semi-intro up front — recall the previous album had “Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird” — but All Them Witches grew out in terms of reach instead of up in terms of volume.

Their songcraft loosened so that “El Centro,” which wants nothing for heft or groove in its eight-plus minutes as the longest included piece, and an atmospheric stretch like “This is Where it Falls Apart,” with McLeod leading a harmonica-laced jam in a style of liquefied heavy psychedelic blues all them witches dying surfer meets his makerthat All Them Witches are now widely credited with creating, or the willfully soft melodic exploration in “Mellowing” before “Open Passageways” — which is the kind of song that doesn’t come along every decade and should be appreciated as such in composition and arrangement — served as the gateway to the transitional “Instrumental 2 (Welcome to the Caveman Future)” ahead of the closing pair “Talisman” and “Blood and Sand/Milk and Endless Waters,” the latter instrumental but for some spoken parts early and late and the former an essential mood piece, its lyrics vague and characteristic of Parks‘ obscure poetry in telling a story from an assumed point of view. Even “Dirt Preachers,” which is so much Dying Surfer‘s outburst moment, loud and tense, breaking into its chorus like the Kool-Aid Man through the wall of your mom’s house in your ’90s daydreams, subverts expectation in how it’s constructed. It’s got a hook, to be sure, but in production and delivery it is introverted and lets the listener find it instead of reaching out at the risk of coming off cloying. If All Them Witches have ever been anything, it’s not that. “Dirt Preachers” is more memorable than catchy.

It’s neonostalgic hearing that and the record from whence it comes, not the least because the band have three subsequent studio LPs — 2017’s Sleeping Through the War (review here), 2018’s ATW (review here) and 2020’s Nothing as the Ideal (review here) — and multiple live releases and so on in the eight years since, but even now there are new aspects of Dying Surfer Meets His Maker that reveal themselves in terms of how the component songs interact. One can hear them working in pairs, as “Call Me Star” moves into “El Centro,” the purposeful turn of “Dirt Preachers” slowing into its emotionally resonant finish and smoothly giving over to the comedown jam “This is Where it Falls Apart,” and “Mellowing” serves as a lead-in for “Open Passageways”; though, if it’s an intro, it should be noted that it’s longer than the song it’s introducing. Does that make “Open Passageways” an outro?

This procession grows more complex but no less fluid as “Instrumental 2 (Welcome to the Caveman Future)” softly meanders on electric guitar, jams through its midsection and quiets again in the two and a half minutes before “Talisman” takes hold and builds to its finish of singing lead guitar and subtle angularity amid a tone warm enough that it seems to be what the lyrics are craving, and “Blood and Sand/Milk and Endless Waters” capping by building on that shimmer, trippy but not lacking motion thanks in no small part to Staebler‘s kick drum, which along with the prominent fuzz in Parks‘ bass, is the last element to leave as they make their way out, the three sets of song-pairs leading to the blurring of lines that is the final trilogy, likewise raw and lush, fully dug in and brazenly their own. They could’ve started writing hits for nonexistent radio. They went the other way and emerged stronger for it.

All Them Witches last year released a series of monthly singles called ‘Baker’s Dozen’ (posted here) that continued to put light on the variety in their approach and the strength of their jams, they put out the physical pressings of the late-2020 Live on the Internet stream capture, and earlier this year, they launched a tour playing multiple nights in major markets, each night doing a different album in full, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker among them. Having left following Sleeping Through the WarVan Cleave re-completed the four-piece by returning in 2021. He would seem to be welcome on all fronts, internal and external. Three years (i.e., 2020-’23) is the longest All Them Witches have gone without an LP release since their inception, but they’ve never really stopped, and they’ve never stopped growing. Dying Surfer Meets His Maker is an essential showcase of that ethic, and an uncompromised view of who the band were becoming, in addition to being one of the foremost releases of the heavy ’10s.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Well, we seem to have made it through camp this week, which is the same thing I said last Friday with zoo camp before getting the call from the counselor to go pick up The Pecan early because apparently like the last two hours of the entire week was a bridge too far in terms of her holding it together. It helps that what we’ve been calling “farm camp” — at Foster Fields, in Morristown, a working historical farm — is two and a half hours per day instead of eight or whatever zoo camp was. Still, on Wednesday we rolled in to pick her up and got to hear about her biting a counselor. Again.

I could go on and on here about my concerns, worries, etc., as regards The Pecan. Between the ever-present behavioral issues, attention deficit, hyperactivity, lack of concern for the feelings of others, basic mental health and periodically violent temper. She’s trying. I know she is. She has a good heart. I wish she had an easier time.

Tonight I’m going to see Metallica? At Giants Stadium? Weird, I know. It’s a long story. My sister went to the Guns ‘n’ Roses/Metallica/Faith No More tour in 1991. I even got to watch about 45 seconds of Metallica that night, at the tender age of nine. She bought tickets to tonight and Sunday I think mostly so she could take her older son (15 and accordingly brooding) and our mother (76, needs new knees and had cataract surgery this week, which went well), but, you know, family outing. I’ve never seen a Metallica show, and while the thought of watching some of the openers and then exposing myself to the potential of hearing about James Hetfield’s lifestyle determining his deathstyle makes my stomach turn, my mother will have a good time and I’ll remember my mother having a good time. That’s what it’s about. I’m not reviewing. I’m sure it will be fine.

Next Tuesday I travel to Portugal for SonicBlast. My first time there. The timetable got released a couple weeks ago and it’s a beautiful lack of scheduling conflicts that’s going to make for a few busy days. Three full fest days and a pre-show. That I’ll be covering, words and pics, as much as I possibly can.

5:30 now and I expect The Pecan up any minute, so I’ll leave it there for the week. Monday and Tuesday are already full before I fly out Tuesday night, a Medicine Horse premiere and maybe a Desslok premiere? Lots of videos lately. I might try to sneak in another review as well, just because there’s a ton going on, but it depends on time and how anxious/distracted I am about the journey to be made. I also have a new camera bag that replaces my cosmic backpack, which The Pecan took to camp three weeks ago and it got organic bug repellant spilled in it, smelling like ginger on an apparently permanent basis. I need to pack that, make sure I have earplugs, Advil, chargers, whathaveyou.

In any case, I wish you a great and safe weekend. Have fun, drink water, watch your head, don’t bite anybody who doesn’t want to be bit, and so on. Thanks as always for reading.


The Obelisk Collective on Facebook

The Obelisk Radio

The Obelisk merch

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply