Originally written by Rae Amitay
Witch Mountain is a doom metal group from Portland that has been on the scene for over a decade, but since the addition of vocalist Uta Plotkin in 2009, they’ve been steadfastly touring, promoting, and garnering attention from significant sources like NPR, Decibel, and Adult Swim. Considering how long they’ve been playing together, it’s hard to believe South of Salem is only their sophomore record. Their time together adds cohesion and chemistry to the album, with each musician taking a relaxed, comfortable approach to the material.
Uta Plotkin’s presence immediately gives Witch Mountain a uniquely sensual sound atypical to the doom genre. When exploring her brilliant range in higher registers, the timbre gets a little saccharine for my tastes, but there’s no denying her vocal prowess. Many of her performances are reminiscent of a doom-influenced Heart, especially in “Wing of the Lord”. I would’ve loved to hear a bit more grit from her clean singing, but despite her predominantly dulcet tones I never felt as though Witch Mountain fell prey to the whole “beauty and the beast” band guise. Plotkin sings with indisputable soul, which is a wonderfully bluesy respite from the insincere, vibrato-laden pop drivel that has plagued my ears since arriving at music school a few years ago.
Dirty guitar tone, and dense, down-tempo riffs set the mood for the entire album. The consistently slow pace of South of Salem does drag after awhile, and a bit more variety might have transformed the plodding trek into something a bit more stimulating. There aren’t really many “hooks” per se, and the compositional similarities between tracks lead to nebulous distinctions between them until the twelve-minute penultimate piece, “Hare’s Stare”. The beginning has a lighter atmosphere but after a couple of minutes the heaviness increases, and Plotkin even throws in some respectable growls beneath her melodic lines. The tom-heavy drumming builds strength and tension, and drummer Nathan Carson has a clear understanding of dynamics and how to utilize the percussion’s dramatic potential.
A commendable trait about this band is their instrumental restraint. There’s absolutely no guitar wankery or bpm-shattering blast beats to be found, and that’s a beautiful thing. Their sound may be gritty, but their playing is subdued enough to sustain heavy groove. Guitarist Rob Wrong clearly has chops, but his expressive solos never turn into a shred-fest. The unhurried and deliberate approach that prevails through nearly the entire album may prove monotonous to some, but I’m eager to see what kind of sonic risks Witch Mountain takes on their third release, now that their line-up is solidified and they’ve purged themselves of a decade’s worth of pent-up material. In short, South of Salem is great music for a summer drive, and an excellent addition to a doom metal fan’s collection.