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Witch Mountain – South of Salem

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Recently I was listening to an Elmore James record, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It took me a while to pin down why: I could hear fingers on the strings. Every slide movement and every string squeak sounded like they were inches away. I could hear a human playing.

The fact that this was a novelty shocked me. It dawned on me that I’ve been listening to so much modern metal that I’ve forgotten what human musicians sound like. I constantly listen to metal that’s been brickwall-compressed and crumbled into 192kbps or lower bitrate MP3s. (That’s not a choice; many promos now come like this, and given the hundreds in my queue, I’ve lost the energy to plead for high-quality MP3s.) My ears have grown used to digital shit.

So South of Salem (self-released, 2011) comes as a breath of analog fresh air. At no time do I feel like I’m hearing grids in Pro Tools. The band lays back behind the beat so much that Snoop Dogg sounds uptight by comparison. This is a big deal. A lot of sludge and stoner metal pays lip service to swing, with boogie riffs that feel obligatory. But actual swing that winds waists? Few bands can do it.

Witch Mountain can. They do it live; singer Uta Plotkin does a charming stroll-in-place dance when her band digs into big, meaty grooves. And, miracle of miracles, they do it on record. A metal band that sounds on record like it does live – imagine that! No “their live show is where it’s at” with this band. Every damn place is where it’s at with this band.

Sabbath, Hendrix, Goatsnake: Witch Mountain’s roots are clear. Plotkin draws from a lineage of white female soul singers from Janis Joplin to Joss Stone. But she doesn’t sound like those names. When I hear her, I know it’s her. Her singing is raw and free, hitting notes as needed, but exploring melisma, off-the-cuff embellishments, and Hendrix-style speak-singing. Guitarist Rob Wrong sounds like Hendrix so much, it’s dangerous – until one realizes that the context is new: Hendrix in a doom band. Nate Carson doesn’t drum so much as massage riffs, subtly applying fingers and wood and metal. Yet at one crest, he shifts on top of the beat, really hammering it down, and the contrast is brutal. So many bands are pedal-to-the-metal from the get-go. That’s brutal only in its dullness.

Here are four folks who are individually discernible, yet come together for swing so mighty, it’s indecent. They take their time. Riffs rumble and roll through passing tones, the steps between target notes. The result? You move – front and back, and side to side. (Then I let the Alpine play (play). The groove should lubricate even the stiffest of necks. Those with hips will use ’em, too. When I step out after a day of computer screens into the sunshine, I feel like a human being again. When I put away my MP3s of digital shit and put on this oaken beauty, I feel likewise.

— Cosmo Lee

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Full album stream, LP, shirt, pay-what-you-want download

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