“Now I see it’s high-time for mischief, once again.”
All Them Witches have been making glorious mischief all throughout 2018. The past year has seen this once-underground garage band from Nashville making ever larger impact upon the international scene with constant touring throughout Europe and the States, including an opening slot on the Primus/Mastodon tour. Somehow these backwoods vagabonds also managed to find time to write and record another stellar album, their fifth full-length release in six years.
2017’s excellent Sleeping Through The War was a bit of a departure from their earlier records in that it was their first utilizing an outside producer and additional musicians, creating an expanded sonic universe for their fractured psych-rock tales. For ATW they’ve gone back to the woods and back to their DIY roots with guitarist Ben McLeod taking over production duties, recording the album in analogue in a rented cabin in Tennessee. The results show a band that is so in control of their particular muse they require no outside assistance.
ATW is the first album they’ve released since the departure of founding keyboardist Allan Van Cleave who left the band in 2017. For this album they’ve brought in guest keyboardist Jonathan Draper who has also been touring with the group for the past year. Jonathan slots in nicely on the album, even though the overall thrust of ATW leans more on the guitar to drive the arrangements while the keyboards provide coloration.
The quizzically-titled Fishbelly 86 Onions comes slashing out of the gate like a 60s grindhouse soundtrack, probably for something called “Biker Witches vs Atomic Zombies”. It’s completely gonzo in all the right ways, from Charles Michael Parks, Jr.’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings to Ben McLeod’s scalding hot guitar solo during the extroverted outro. A joyous, pummelling affair that would make a great set-opener.
The other prominent rocker on ATW is the sci-fi tinged riff monster ‘1st vs. 2nd’. This barnstorming track harkens back to the vibe of Sleeping Through The War with Staebler assaulting his drums with devilish abandon and Parks and McLeod in lockstep crunch.
Workhorse drags us out of the stratosphere and drops us back down in the dirt; a slinky, sinister blues relating life on the tour grind to that of a plough horse. It’s a simple, elemental arrangement with Staebler’s rim shot groove driving McLeod’s buzzy slide guitar riff. The song is perfectly tailored to Parks’ earthy voice, which increases in gravitas with each release.
Another fine feature for Parks is the lovely Half-Tongue, an engagingly dark ballad with a sprightly jazz groove. Draper provides some fine organ accompaniment and Ben delivers some mighty tasty choruses on guitar. It’s a subtle arrangement that demonstrates how this band can make grand statements with the simplest of ingredients.
This point is driven home by the deceptively simple Diamond. It’s a cool, creeping menace; a slow dance through hell. In lesser hands an arrangement this sparse could have easily turned into a plod to nowhere, but here it’s a simmering, lurching delight. Staebler again demonstrates his skill by keeping it bouncy and driving even at this funerary dirge pace and McLeod, Parks and Draper contribute just enough to make it effective without derailing the stripped-down essence of the piece.
Another similarity between ATW and the prior Sleeping Through The War is the sequencing puts the punchier pieces on the first half of the album and then lets things unwind and expand on the second. In both cases the approach works and mirrors how their live sets develop. Tracks like the psych-doom HJTC and the album-closing jam Rob’s Dream are given the space they need to develop naturally and benefit greatly from the live-in-the-cabin recording.
And then we come to Harvest Feast, not only the finest track on ATW, but arguably the most breath-taking track All Them Witches have released to date. The first section of the piece is a sublime slow blues, organically wrought and utterly convincing, it conjures fleeting thoughts of Cream in the heavier moments but is unmistakably evocative of the southern US. The rural surroundings of the recording seem to have seeped onto the reels. The instrumental second half of the piece leaves the earth behind and drifts into the yawning expanse of the infinite. Ben McLeod shines here, creating shimmering guitar harmonies of a type rarely heard in the present day with Draper’s electric piano standing in for the second guitar. While you can discern the influence of Wishbone Ash, The Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix, the results are no mere pastiche and are deeply personal and moving. It’s simply some of the best music released by anyone in 2018.
All Them Witches seem to be embracing their essence on this album. Only six years into their recording career they’ve already covered more ground than may bands achieve in twice that span and they show no sign of complacency. Each album brings its own personality, a mirror of the moment it was created, and then they quickly proceed to the next chapter. With Sleeping Through The War the key was addition and expansion, with ATW the key is subtraction and focusing the gaze inward to the truth within.
“…we love music, and there would be no reason for us to go on the road or endure what we endure if not for the transformative power of music. It is an ancient pull, and I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but we are knee deep and wading out.” – Charles Michael Parks Jr.
01. Fishbelly 86 Onions (6:02)
02. Workhorse (5:44)
03. 1st vs. 2nd (5:58)
04. Half-Tongue (4:35)
05. Diamond (6:10)
06. Harvest Feast (10:45)
07. HJTC (5:48)
08. Rob’s Dream (6:51)
Total Time – 51:33
Charles Michael Parks,Jr – Bass Guitar, Vocals
Ben McLeod – Guitar
Robby Staebler – Drums
Jonathan Draper – Keyboards
Record Label: New West Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 28th September 2018