If there was anything to glean from All Them Witches’ previous output, it’s that they aren’t the kind of band to repeat themselves. Each album serves as a unique Polaroid snapshot of the group at that particular moment. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. Continuity is of no concern; variety and evolution are paramount, but don’t seem to influence their creative process – they’re of the rare breed where their sound is not dictated by the name that graces the album’s cover. ATW is no exception, yet regardless of how different this may be from the rest of their catalogue, it feels like a safe play and not particularly as inventive as they proven themselves to be in the past. Much of the album springs from their familiar jammy roots, but sometimes they’re just too deep-seated in the groove to move on.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a few surprises on ATW. Opener “Fishbelly 86 Onions” is certainly nothing like the band has written before, so much that it’s even a bit weird by their all-encompassing standards. It’s got that classic psych/garage feel just absolutely nailed, where new keyboardist Jonathan Draper effectively balances the stop-and-go bounce with tasty whirring organ licks that break up the rhythmic bombast. It feels like the MC5 got tangled up with The Doors, and it’s exactly as awkward as that sounds. It’s an odd choice as an opener, putting listeners on an uneven keel from the get-go. The stumble continues onto the folky “Workhorse,” where the group resembles the twangy, stripped-down, and sensual blues rock of BWOW. It’s something that might have worked as an interlude or a brief change-up, but instead it’s bloated to nearly six minutes long, swaying between all-too-casual verses and a chorus where the clamor is overshadowed by a quirky (and downright cumbersome) vocal arrangement. Attention-grabbing, yes, but it’s just never for the right reasons. From the onset, it’s apparent that this edition of the group is willing to experiment, but the ideas are undercooked.
It’s not until the album’s third track do they find their stride. “1st vs. 2nd” is reminiscent of a Led Zeppelin (read: “Black Dog”) sort of rambler where the extended phrasing bleeds out into a smooth, trippy chorus, only to get brushed aside by some static chugging from the 3:25 mark onward with unfortunately little happening around it (I honestly thought my record was skipping until the keys start filling in the lines). However atmospheric this half is, it never really ends up anywhere. It seems like it’d lead to a great place to break tension with an explosive outro, but instead it merely dies off in unspectacular fashion. Disappointing as the close may be, it’s proof that there’s room for some classic rock tropes in All Them Witches’ palette, they’re strangely refreshing. This track (along with the retro “Fishbelly 86 Onions”), validates these forays with welcome injections of energy into an otherwise fairly mellow psych record. Though most of their energy flows through this vintage conduit, they still find ways to meander their way to some fairly massive eruptions. “Diamond” steadily builds on dreary strings to eventually form a super-heavy climax that could make Jerry Cantrell jealous. “HJTC” similarly pounds away, building steam until it releases into an unwieldy stomp laced with slick harmonies. There’s a focus on pushing jams to their logical extremes (until they burst or don’t), emphasizing mood development over dense composition.
When it’s effective, it’s impressive. The laid-back vibes of album highlights “Half-Tongue,” “Harvest Feast,” and “Rob’s Dream” are akin to the slow burners of their older work. Through a fantastic marriage of soulful, heart-on-the-sleeve blues and hard rock across an expanded frameworks, there’s room for everyone to shine. They showcase the vastness of their sound, vouching for their ability as players as much as they do capture the feel of the group in a live setting. When this is less effective (primarily across the first few tracks), they sound incomplete, uninspired, and long-winded. Where Sleeping Through The War producer Dave Cobb reigned the group in to crafting well-defined compositions that were efficient as they evolved, the self-produced ATW is comparatively loose, ambiguous, and even a little reckless. The grooves on ATW find ways to overstay their welcome, or they’re simply too chill to develop the dynamism that made their loud and heavy moments so lush (of which there are admittedly few this go around). A few trims here and there (most of the album’s tracks push six minutes and often feel longer) or some additional progressions, and this might keep a little fresher on repeat listens.
Though it may be their eponymous work, it’s the least representative of the group’s overall sound. In a way, this is exactly the kind of point they’ve been making all along. This album embodies the moment. The present may be truer to them than anything else, but this snapshot isn’t as captivating as the ones that have come before it. ATW is by no means a bad record, but it’s sure to exist in the shadow of the ridiculous quality and consistency of their past. Those heavy into the blues may see this record with a different kind of crossover appeal, but those who’ve been following the group might feel underwhelmed. For as much as they pull in new influences, they aren’t enough to make the sea change that gave each of their other albums such a distinct flavor. It’s hardly what you’d offer to introduce the group to someone; but the back-to-basics, session-y, passive nature makes this nice to throw on if you’re just chilling out, and sometimes that’s alright.
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ATW is available this very instant on New West Records.