Classic doom mongers Witch Mountain walk in the hallowed halls of Lord Iommi

Monday 15th, September 2014 / 12:03
By Gareth Watkins
Photo: Marne Lucas

Photo: Marne Lucas

CALGARY — Doom metal was a total accident, an accident involving blood and steel and grey northern skies, but still the result of one guy fucking up. Anthony ‘Tony’ Iommi, working at a sheet metal factory in Birmingham, England, cut the tips off his ring and middle finger on his right hand. His guitar playing days were over. He wasn’t willing to start over with his left hand. However, he learned that Django Reinhardt, jazz legend, had suffered a similar injury and developed a way of playing with only two fingers. Still, playing hurt. Thin-gauge strings were still a ways off. He tried banjo strings and crude homemade thimbles, but the real difference came when he down tuned three semitones below standard guitar tuning. Iommi’s band, Black Sabbath, subsequently became the thickest and heaviest band around, spawning the metal genre we hold dear.

More than 40 years later, metal has differentiated into unthinkably divergent realms. However, that guitar sound – along with a few other Sabbathian standards – define doom metal. The lyrical themes of despair, dejection and the occult continue to this day.

In 2014, doom accommodates everyone from avant-gardists Sunn 0))) and The Body to traditionalists like the Wandering Midget. There has been growing interest in recent years towards conjuring that early, epic sound. Enter Witch Mountain from the fertile grounds of Portland, Oregon, who have been together in one form or another since 1997, always working within the parameters of thick guitar sounds, clean vocals, a bluesy swagger, while delivering in a style that’s all their own. Since 2009, their vocals have been provided by Uta Plotkin, whose voice, simply put, is phenomenal. Sadly, she’s leaving after the release of their new record Mobile of Angels on September 30th. The split is amicable, but she’s going to very hard to replace. No matter, the band marches on. They were together before Plotkin, and announced via Revolver she would be replaced.

“Someone (male or female) will eventually send us a demo that brings us to tears. Until then, we remain focused on our final tour with Uta, and promoting our brand new album.”

Rewind 18 years. Nathan Carson, the band’s drummer and booking agent for Nanotear, had an “epiphany” about doom metal after listening to a Saint Vitus record in 1996. This led him to search the proto-Internet of the time for the genre, where he found an essay by Napalm Death/Cathedral grunter/singer Lee Dorrian, arguing for the genre’s legitimacy and introducing Carson to Trouble, Witchfinder General, Solitude Aeternus and other bands who kept the genre alive after Sabbath. He saw that it wasn’t a few people too stoned to play their guitars fast. It was a form of music as valid as any other, and he wanted in.

“When I moved to Portland I had a vision of starting a band like that because there wasn’t one in the whole state of Oregon. It was very un-hip to play slow in the ‘90s and metal in general was at a low point.”

He met guitarist Rob Wrong, who played in sludge band Iommi Stubbs, and decided “that’s the guy I want to play with.” Wrong’s band went on hiatus and he called Carson. Witch Mountain was founded in July of 1997, with Wrong singing and a revolving lineup of bassists. Albums were released inconsistently, and they very nearly slipped between the cracks. However, in 2009 Uta was interning for Carson’s booking agency Nanotear and singing in her own band. Nathan noticed her voice (again: phenomenal) and invited her to sing with the band when they supported Pentagram.

They had a lineup, but to be where they wanted to be they needed to be on a bigger label. Nathan got to know Chris Bruni of Profound Lore, as Bruni would be releasing records by Agalloch and YOB while Carson booked their tours, and set about showing him that Witch Mountain couldn’t just play, but that they had the professionalism to go all the distance.

“A lot of bands are flaky and will say anything to a label to get signed, so I had a couple of years of being able to prove that anything I say I’m going to do is going to happen and it’s going to go well. But the challenge that we had was that Witch Mountain hadn’t put out an album in nine years, so I think there was a question mark over any label’s head: ‘Who are these guys and what took them so long and are they going to make this record and break up?’”

They self-released South of Salem on vinyl and the acclaim (including being named the fourth best metal album of the year by NPR) was enough to convince Bruni to sign them to the label. Accordingly, Profound Lore will be releasing Mobile of Angels in late September, while Svart Records will handle the record in Europe.

The album was recorded with vinyl in mind. The band assembled their eight- to 10-minute long songs “like a Tetris game” until they came up with something remarkably cohesive that highlights the breadth of the band’s sound and, by extension, everything that is possible in the doom genre. The first half is heavier, the second half sprawling and emotionally rich. Elements of jazz creep in at the edges of their sound, as do the blues, but the focus is always on the riffs, which are huge, and Plotkin’s voice, which is capable of an angelic falsetto and a deep growl.

It’s a good year for doom. Earth, Electric Wizard, Mournful Congregation and YOB all have new records; Pallbearer and Profetus are crawling from their graves and taking their place amongst the genre’s heavyweights. There’s a noticeable slowing down and mellowing out going on.

“This time around it doesn’t feel like a trend,” says Carson. “It feels more like acceptance, and I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that people were snobs about metal for a really long time and in the ‘90s and the early 21st century it was really easy to write off anything that had guitar solos, double bass drums or shrieking singing. Over time people just outgrew that and realized, ‘who gives a shit?’ You either like it or you don’t. In a lot of ways a blues-based traditional doom record is a lot more accessible to the average music fan than death metal or black metal, even though those are really popular styles. The average guy or girl on the street can listen to Candlemass and it doesn’t sound like shrieking noise to them.”

Stories of hard work and perseverance don’t sit well with music fans who aren’t musicians themselves. The idea that bands have to work to assemble their albums into coherent wholes, that they have to prove themselves as business-people doesn’t seem as sexy, as rock and roll, as biting the heads off of bats and burning down churches. But talking to Witch Mountain, and listening to the recorded evidence of a decades-long love of doom, it’s obvious that their longevity and success are not an accident. It’s the result of hard work and a real skill at making long, sad, heavy, epic songs, regardless of who stands in front of the microphone.

Watch Witch Mountain at the Palomino Smokehouse & Bar on Wednesday, September 24th with Hawkwind.

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