Monday, 18 November 2013

Mountain Witch - Cold River (album review)

Cover artwork by Emil Ahlman.
Every other band out there has either the word "Mountain" or "Witch" in their band name (there's at least one other band that has both).  Every other band uses vintage gear.  Every other band plays "Retro Rock".  With so many excellent albums out recently in this same style [Noctum's 'Final Sacrifice'; Doublestone's 'Wingmakers'; Horisont's 'Time Warriors'; Seremonia's 'Ihminen'], why did this German trio release theirs now?  Is there really room in this world for one more Germanic "throwback" band and their music?  On the surface, it would seem this is an album crafted from the very ashes of redundancy, destined to be lost in the shuffle and ultimately forgotten.  I find myself having to qualify this every single time I talk about a band that plays this "Retro Rock" style, but in the spirit of redundancy, I'll so it once more:  no two Retro Rock bands sound alike.  It becomes obvious as time unfolds with each and every new entry into the category that such uniqueness is one of the defining characteristics of the sub sub genre.  Sure, there are other Retro Rock bands that play a darker version of seventies hard rock sounds.  But, once more in the spirit of redundancy, there's something different about Mountain Witch after all (not to be confused with Portland, Oregon's Witch Mountain).

'Cold River' is Mountain Witch's second album, after 'Scythe & Dead Horse' from 2009.  The inaugural incarnation of the band featured Rene Sitte on guitar and Rene Roggman on drums, I haven't heard 'Scythe & Dead Horse' but the pair is said to have played highly improvisational instrumental desert rock.  Whatever the band sounded like in 2009, they are a doom rock beast in 2013.  The band has since recruited Tobert Knopp to play bass and Roggman has taken up vocal duties.  It's Roggman's sense of lyrical playfulness that ultimately wins me over.

"Shrubbery the Warlock" tells the tale of a pissed off warlock on the mountain top.  The entire story is bizarre and a little bit silly and that it's framed in an earnest sounding tune steeped in dark overtones lends it the air of absurdity.  "Sleepers Chant" features a rolling "vocal round" style performance that gives it the feeling of a nursery rhyme.  It's little touches like this that really make 'Cold River' stand out and keep it from getting lost in the slew of terrific albums.  But first, the album must get by on the music alone and Mountain Witch are up to the task.

The album kicks off with the short instrumental, "Snake Wand".  It's the only instrumental song on the album but feels like just the first of many.  Which isn't to put down of Roggman's vocals in any way, in fact I find his performance more captivating than most vocalists.  His delivery is often deep and commanding.  But it's a testament to the hypnotic groove laid down by the band and the deep dense forest of structure that I didn't even realize at first whether or not the songs were instrumental until I listened to them over again and watched the tracklist.  "Sleepers Chant" for example is instrumental until around the three minute mark when the song takes its unique twist.  Opening riffs are drawn out for extra measures the toyed with until the riff is embedded in the brain, it's only then that the band can move freely into the second act of the song.  Mountain Witch comes by this approach naturally and the instrumental sections contribute greatly to the dark atmosphere that the band has cultivated.  Mountain Witch's music is captivating without having to do too much.  The songs are well structured and dynamic, to the point where instrumental segments stand alone and sound like fully fleshed out songs in their own right, taking familiar themes and sounds and darkening them subtly through tone and extended passages.

Some Retro Rockers can take things too far.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does it's highly noticeable and stretches the limits of creative license.  What I'm talking about is stealing moments.  I'll explain.  One band in particular (let's call them Flower Band X) displays little to no subtlety in their dipping into the cupboard of Black Sabbath, stealing whole riffs or combining whole elements from two songs to make "new" ones and I imagine they'll keep at it until the cupboard is bare.  Mountain Witch (like Horisont) displays a deft hand for a more respectful kind of knickery.  They understand to take only one cookie at a time from the cookie jar and even then not too often, otherwise Mom and Dad are going to find out.  You may hear a familiar sound here or there as the band borrows a lick without resorting to swiping whole songs entirely.  On "The Covey", you will feel an old familiar sting from the drum pattern of "Children of the Grave".  But Mountain Witch do it in their own way.  Had they say, played the guitar riff from the Sabbath original overtop of it, this would be an entirely different conversation.  Look, the point is, Mountain Witch do it the right way.  Matter of fact, they do a lot of things right.

Retro Rock, Doom Rock, call it what you will, Mountain Witch's dark tunes strike the right notes, I have a feeling that this will be one of the albums that I'll be going back to for ages to come.  The album has been released on CD [here] and LP [here] by This Charming Man Records, I picked up my copy already.  You can always go with the ever popular bandcamp download by clicking the links on the player below.  You'll probably want to, without making any promises from this end I have another feeling that this album will be "list-bombing" the year end best of lists.

Highlights include: "Shrubbery the Warlock" and "Sleepers Chant"

Rating: 4.5/5

Total Run Time: 39:14

From: Hamburg, Germany

Genre: Doom, Rock,

Reminds me of: Black Sabbath, Brutus, Witchcraft (early years)

Release Date: October 28, 2013

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