It’s often assumed that doom metal is merely a retro genre that refers exclusively back to the 70s and 80s. But there’s another possible story. Doom didn’t even really exist in the 70s. Sure, Black Sabbath has a handful of proto-doom songs, particularly on Master Of Reality that are clearly the launchpad of the genre. Pentagram ran with it, but no one really noticed until the mid-80s. There are undeniably some classics in the 80s from Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Candlemass, Trouble, The Obsessed, Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General. But doom is a slow moving beast, and kept growing and expanding through the 00s, and arguably is enjoying its biggest audience ever right now. Black Sabbath may have never directly acknowledged being part of doom to my knowledge, but something influenced them to revisit their early 70s sound, resulting in 13 being undeniably doomy. Pentagram was featured in a documentary and seem to be at peak popularity along with Saint Vitus, along with younger bands like Pallbearer and Witch Mountain. We’ve seen some big releases recently from Pallbearer, Earth and YOB (all of whom were featured on the covers of glossy magazines that don’t always focus on doom like Decibel and Rock-A-Rolla. Anticipation for Electric Wizard’s eighth album seems more feverish than even the tortured, extended wait between Come My Fanatics… (1997) and Dopethrone (2000).
Electric Wizard – Time To Die (Spinefarm)
If there was ever case of my being a big fan of a band I wouldn’t necessarily want to know personally, it’s Electric Wizard. Jus Osborn by most accounts seems to be extremely difficult to work with. Alienating his biggest longtime supporter Lee Dorian and his Rise Above label was pretty pointless. They somehow figured they’d have more control over their destiny by starting their own label Witchfinder, and release the new album in May. That obviously didn’t work out, and they ended up with Finnish label Spinefarm, who has the distribution muscle of Universal Music Group. The label has developed a pretty large metal roster since 1999 and should be fine. Meanwhile, Osborn moved further out into the countryside to percolate in his misanthropic lair with wife and bandmate Liz Buckingham who joined in 2003. He lured original drummer Mark Greening back long enough to record the album before unceremoniously dumping him again, and hired bassist Clayton Burgess to replace Glenn Charman. Burgess also leads his own great band Satan’s Satyrs.
Despite the unstable lineup, Time To Die is their best since Dopethrone. The experimental Let Us Prey (2002) was disappointing at the time but has its merits, and We Live (2004) was kind of underrated. Witchcult Today (2007) saw the band make another surge in popularity, despite the fact that they lost their low end and sounded somewhat neutered, and by Black Masses (2010), it seemed their old claustrophobic, insanely evil and heavy sound was a thing of the past. That shitty low-fi sounds seemed to be a big influence on Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats. The popularity is likely a reason that the ever-contrary Osborn decided to make a switch to their most bilious, nasty sound ever. This decision I heartily agree with. Electric Wizard ooze with hate, and in that respect Time To Die is probably their most honest work. Osborn promised something “savage, hateful and mind-destroying,” and that’s just what we get.
At the beginning of “Incense for the Damned” we hear the sounds of a babbling brook. Rather than the idyllic Blakeian vision of the English countryside, I imagine a dead body in the stream. Throughout the album, Richard ‘Ricky’ Kasso’s ritualistic murder of Gary Lauwers in 1984 is referenced via newsclips. The 17 year-old was high on acid at the time and hung himself in his cell a couple days later. The song lays out its statement of purpose with conviction, leaving behind the anemic analog Toe Rag recordings of the past two albums, and kicking into glorious full range overdrive. By the time they reach the bombed-out breakdown at 5:40, the guitars are squalling nightmarish landscapes, the band are screaming “die!” and the reverb of the bass drum is shaking the rafters. The chaos is reigned in by 7:40 with a perfectly placed riff, and they repeat the simple sentiment, “We want to get high before we die” for the rest of the 10:42 long track. On my fifth listen it never sounds too long. In lesser hands it might, but Electric Wizard are without a doubt the masters.
“Time To Die” almost sounds like the previous track had kept going, with the droning guitar lead remaining in the same key. This gives the album a feel of continuity, an hour plus tour of Hell. It features a fairly simple, cyclical riff and repetitive exhortations of “wake up baby, it’s time to die” with occasional wah-wah guitar lines that remind me of The Stooges’ debut album. “I Am Nothing” is even more simple and brutal, and also the longest track at 11:31. For most it might be the most impenetrable. So perversely it’s the first track the band released on video. I suppose if one kept this on the background and didn’t pay much attention it would be boring or irritating. But what kind of asshole listens to Electric Wizard that way? You’ve either got to be all in, willing to submit your attention and psyche to the power of the music, or don’t fucking bother. For fuck’s sake. The truth is that it’s one of many masterful performances on the album. Greening’s drumming and newcomer Burgess’ bass lock into a groove that contracts and expands, and with the perfect guitar accompaniment from Osborn and Buckingham, is one of the Wiz’s most satisfyingly trippy accomplishments.
“Destroy Those Who Love God” features news and documentary footage throughout the track, which put it in danger of of being filler. In a way it is, but the clips are well chosen, thought provoking and eerie. It works, and in the context of the rest of the songs, is over in the blink of an eye of 3:03. Starting with the almost chooglin’ “Funeral Of The Mind,” the rest of the album is almost festive compared to the initial punishing bleakness. There’s a touch of garage-psych in the chorus which could have been found on a lost outtake from Alice Cooper between Easy Action (1970) and Love It To Death (1971). The sound is all Wizard though. “We Love The Dead” is more atmospheric, sounding like what they were aiming for on Black Masses but got it right this time. “Sadiowitch” sees the band effortlessly rolling out another classic title with a memorable riff set to a steady groove. “Lucifer’s Slaves” reaches another peak, and edges out the others as my favorite track. Overall this album is not heavier than Dopethrone. I think that was a conscious choice in order to make the experience more dynamic, so that moments like halfway through “Lucifer’s Slaves” when the bottom drops out, you feel jolted and tune into the incredibly heavy tones more intensely, and makes the echo-laden psychedelic coda with reverb and wah-wah feel all that more profound. That might seem silly to an outsider who only sees the kitschy occult surface of the band. But even with the organ-laden instrumental outro “Saturn Dethroned,” which perhaps ties back to “Saturn’s Children” from We Live and even “Saturnine” on Witchcult Today, it’s clear that the band is reaching for some kind of transcendent state beyond the violence and emotions. The final experience is going to vary for each listener, but to me there’s no question that Electric Wizard expertly constructed and performed a nearly perfect soundtrack to the journey. | Buy at Electricfuckinwizard.com
Witch Mountain – Mobile Of Angels (Profound Lore)
To drum up interest in these two albums, I posted a sort of battle of bands question in some forums and social media. It’s not exactly a fair fight, with Electric Wizard’s legendary status looming over the entire doom landscape like the true colossus that it is. However, on their fourth album, Witch Mountain are no slouches. Neither are they exactly new doomers on the block, considering they’ve been together since 1997. There was a long gap between their debut Come The Mountain (2001) and South Of Salem (2011) during which singer Uta Plotkin joined, bringing a lot more attention to the band. Despite there being no shortage of women vocalists and bandleaders in metal these days, Plotkin’s style stands out with her impressive chops and range, masterfully incorporating the blues into the band’s repertoire in a way that sounded startlingly fresh. To some she might even be too good a vocalist for the genre, while most would disagree. Uta even gamely switches to some good ol’ sludgly growls now and then.
Mobile Of Angels completes a trilogy of albums featuring Uta, who is leaving the band at the completion of their tour with Nik Turner’s Hawkwind to hopefully keep doing her thing in a solo context. It features some of her best work, with “Psycho Animundi” showing Uta more confident than ever, singing in a forceful lower range that’s arguably her most appropriate performance in the context of doom so far. The whole band is on, showing off how they have reached a new level of tight musicianship through their years on the road. It’s a stunning start to the album, one of their best songs in their catalog. “Can’t Settle” is more similar to the band’s standard lumbering doom fare, but with plenty of flair to also stand out in their catalog. “Your Corrupt Ways (Sour The Hymn)” hits another career highlight, an extended 10:27 centerpiece with Uta’s most soft-spoken, intimate performance so far. Seven minutes in it also features some exceptional guitar solos from Rob Wrong. The title track is a deliciously spooky organ-laden psych gem that takes a page from Jex Thoth’s influential occult atmospherics. It’s an all too brief bridge to the album’s conclusion in “The Shape Truth Takes,” where Uta takes on a higher, ethereal register that floats over the subdued music featuring a beautiful chord progression that ascends into their most beautiful work of their career, and as emotionally powerful as the best the likes of Pallbearer and 40 Watt Sun have to offer.
A lot of fans will be disappointed that Uta is leaving the group, but the band wouldn’t have reached these heights without Rob Wrong, the band’s key songwriter, mastermind and, along with drummer Nate Carson, founder. Wrong handled the vocals on their debut, which were a bit influenced by Kyuss-era John Garcia, which were fine at the time, but not a fit for where they are now. The band will take their time to find a new vocalist. They had their Dio, and now is perhaps an opportunity to find their Ozzy. My only disappointment is that their slot opening for Nik Turner’s Hawkwind was barely a half hour. They sounded better than ever during that short performance, and at this point they really should have had a triumphant headlining tour where they played all their best stuff. Perhaps Uta could be convinced to do one more big festival appearance next year.
So who wins this battle of the bands for album of the week? I still keep going back and forth. Time To Die is at least Electric Wizard’s third best album, which is a huge accomplishment for the legends. But Mobile Of Angels sees Uta exiting at the band’s peak. It’s kind of a tie, a yin-yang situation between two very different albums that represent the wide spectrum that the doom genre includes these days. I’ll need more time through the end of the year to see which album fits my moods most consistently and successfully. Between all the aforementioned albums in the beginning of this review, and the upcoming albums from Alunah, Occultation, Apostle Of Solitude and 11 Paranoias, it’s a damn great time to be a doom fan.