All Them Witches have certainly made a name for themselves as a psych-rock staple over the last decade. Their blues-inflected brand of heavy psych has taken on a variety of forms across their studio releases, each with its own distinct identity and trials of experimentation. It’s rare enough for bands to find consistent commercial and critical success, but even less so amongst bands who challenge themselves from record to record as ATW has. Still, it’s been enough to earn them a slot on Hellfest as well as some opening gigs for Mastodon and Ghost, so there’s something to be said about the group’s appeal in the metal world, but the way these dudes keep branching out on each record, it’s tough to argue that their best days still aren’t ahead of them. Fans of the band know full-well to expect the unexpected, so it’s unsurprisingly surprising that the Nashville group confirms these suspicions by breaking new ground in their foundational sound on Nothing as the Ideal.
Since 2018’s lukewarm ATW, the group shifted gears to full-on power trio, sans-keyboards. This transition seems to have been invigorating, the now-trio relay a brimming confidence throughout Nothing as the Ideal’s 44 minutes. There’s a naturalness to them in this three-piece element. There’s no absence of their signature atmosphere or entrancing grooves. Their post-ATW live performances definitely hinted at these capabilities (I’d argue their KEXP renditions are better than those found on the studio recording), but Nothing as the Ideal captures this lively, dynamic spirit on record about as nicely as one could hope. Mikey Allred (who previously helmed the boards on 2015’s Dying Surfer Meets His Maker) has the band sounding truly excellent as they return to darker, moodier headspaces by bringing substantially more post-metal and psych elements to the forefront while emphasizing the power (trio) at the core of the ATW sound. As the record leans toward the gloomier, mysterious vibes found on Lightning at the Door, Dying Surfer, and Sleeping Through the War, Allred’s involvement makes more sense. He engenders a fresh sense of adventure, shading songs more frequently with darker, more aggressive metallic moods and the vast, gradually blossoming and head-clearing progressions.
The overarching vibe of the record is all but summed up from the onset with “Saturnine & Iron Jaw” where a winding, trippy intro dispels into a patent All Them Witches power groove – a feature conjured up more frequently on this outing than ever before. The mesh point of guitarist Ben McLeod’s tight, genre-agnostic metal riffing; bassist Michael Parks Jr.’s thumpy, heady rhythms; and drummer Robby Staebler’s punchy, rollicking beats are maximized across Nothing as the Ideal. Where ATW often dragged by ruminating on central themes, Nothing focuses this rediscovered energy to develop a sense of urgency, purpose, and power on the album’s shorter tracks. Take for example “Enemy of My Enemy,” a bouncy three-and-a-half-minute prog rock ‘n’ roller in the vein of Mastodon or Rush, or the chuggy, mechanically punishing wire-to-wire stomp of “Lights Out.” Not since Sleeping Through the War have they connected with such variety, brevity, and weight. Similarly, the anchoring post-metal chugs in “41” should feel familiar to fans of McLeod’s heavy solo project Woodsplitter, but it gets warped to a different headspace in the context of Parks and Staebler. The former’s spectral, unbound lyricism and the latter’s organic rhythms pulse to guide the track’s temperament, charging head-on with an affirming heaviness and pulling back in ways that evoke a strange beauty. Throughout Nothing, ATW put themselves square in this balance, often by summoning something curiously eerie or taking a haunting or melodic turn, oddly bringing to mind Isis and other chuggy varieties of post-metal. It’s an unexpected-yet-logical realm in which the band demonstrates both strength and room to grow.
In addition to the heavier angle of the record, the trio also showcases some impressive range and nimbleness. The instrumental “Everest” is a breathtaking guitar segue that bridges nicely into the spacy intro and slow-roll groove of “See You Next Fall,” an infectious drum-driven journey that patiently evolves before momentum takes over in the climactic closing minutes. Staebler really kills it on this track, expertly managing volume and intensity as it undulates. His kinetic style is perfectly suited for this track, especially as it unravels and he flows into full-blown drum solo mode. It’s the kind of song that always seemed to be in the ATW wheelhouse, but has never been executed quite this well. On the flip side, followup “The Children of Coyote Woman” is an example of something that has always been in the ATW wheelhouse, but this outing seems distilled. With pronounced piano booms and spacy guitars, it’s arguably their best crack at this kind of song. In the same way, stripped-down closer “Rats in Ruin” feels like a grunge epic that never was, a washed-out psychedelic sprawl capped off with an awe-inspiring close of leads. It’s the poignant, panoramic closer fitting for an album of this caliber. It’s not merely that they’ve honed a new metal edge on Nothing as the Ideal, but the group has also found more poise in their subdued arrangements.
Because of this, there’s a beautiful ebb and flow to the album; regular changeups make the 44-minute runtime simply fly by. It’s nicely sequenced, balanced, and essentially built for repeat listening. The ambitious bookends “Saturnine & Iron Jaw” and “Rats in Ruin” as well as midpoint “See You Next Fall” make the most of their dramatic changes in direction and inspiring progressions, but their power is amplified by the energetic tracks tentpoled in between. Nothing as the Ideal succeeds in distancing the group from some of the bluesy and garage rock hues found on prior records without completely erasing these colors from the palette. Instead, they’ve been displaced by an edgier, more focused, and sometimes more aggressive sound that simply jibes better with their enhanced ethereal and psych facets. In many ways, this shift makes it feel like a transitional album, but Nothing as the Ideal is absolutely a statement record. It’s hard proof that the three-piece are not only capable but also inventive, featuring some of their strongest individual performances and compositions to date (not to mention the record’s incredible production, this thing is ear candy). Longtime fans will certainly find a lot to love on this album, but it might even turn the ears of those who have found the band to be lacking a more modern metal sound. Nothing as the Ideal is another landmark record for the band, but one can’t help but wonder where they go next and how they get there as for All Them Witches, it’s always about the journey, not the destination.
Nothing as the Ideal is available everywhere (including an audiophile-friendly 2xLP set) via New West Records.