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Ah, here we’re hitting a bit closer to home, with a batch of doom, stoner rock, psychedelia and…well, there’s no “occult rock” herein, really, but hey. It’s pretty much what I’ve been listening to in my offtime all year long and going back into late 2019, alongside a heaping helping of vintage death metal.

So I’m excited, are you excited? Okay, then. Let’s cut the preliminaries and dig right in, shall we?

WITCHCRAFT – Black Metal (Nuclear Blast) (May 1)

Not really doom, not quite occult rock, Sweden’s Witchcraft has always held a bit of an odd sidereality to both of those oft interrelated scenes.

While certainly believably retro minded and much akin to the sort of depressive neofolk the psychedelic rockers of the Woodstock generation devolved into in the drugged out aftermath of the early 70’s, they were likewise a tad cheerier than, say, your average Nick Drake-inspired Prophecy release.  In the end, they held some marketability and interest to fans of all of the above, but truly satisfied none: an interesting, well crafted anomaly, but little more.

So 15 years or so on from their defining self titled and its estimable followup Firewood, mainman Magnus Pelander (vox/guitar) both reiterates and attempts to correct the aforementioned intrinsic flaws in his band’s material with this decidedly grim acoustic solo record.

Loosed thereby from presumed connections to any sort of electric rock or metal, Pelander is freed to make an end run on the whole Prophecy/Nick Drake dark neofolk schtick, which he accomplishes with a surprising degree of elan.

Be warned, this is not an actual Witchcraft album, or is such in name only – it’s more of a Magnus Pelander solo “unplugged” minus the regurgitated hits “in an intimate setting”.

But if you’ve been waiting for Pelander to finally get a grip on that underlying potential for this sort of material and approach? Exhale that long held breath with a sense of profound relief.

By George, I think he’s got it.

SMOKE MOUNTAIN – Queen of Sin (Argonauta Records) (March 27)

You know, since covering their all too brief (if all but perfect) self released EP three years back, I’ve been playing the living shit out of it, the eponymous title track being a particularly perennial earworm.

Few similarly minded doom, stoner or “occult rock” releases have held and perhaps more importantly, maintained the same degree of playability…it’s as if Reagers-era Saint Vitus and Electric Wizard circa Dopethrone were crossed with the very best moments of Lucifer I and Psychedelic Witchcraft’s The Vision (or hell, the related Dead Witches’ Ouija).

Thick riffs, groove, trancey female alto vocals and enough length to get the listener into the proper headspace…primo shit all around.

So one longstanding hope has come to fruition, in that this more than worthy indie act has landed a deal with a proper label (Italy’s Argonauta Records, several of whose releases we’ll be covering tonight) and has released a full length.

Unfortunately, they have not (thus far) chosen to reissue or append the original EP to this release, which is much needed – get that EP out on CD, already!

Those equally enamored of said three track opus should find themselves in comfortably familiar territory here, with Queen of Sin offering a similar batch of grinding riffs with a nigh-Obituary level of groove, dark toned femme vox and appropriately slow and basic drumming.

That said, played side by side (or on shuffle) it’s instantly evident which tracks are from which release – something has shifted since the EP that leaves this album, while still very much top tier for this sort of thing, strangely far less essential than their first, digital or nothing salvo a few years back.

Did they take too much time to craft these songs, rather than just going with their gut? Was too much effort placed on landing a record deal, or has too much time simply passed, resulting in some minor but very noticeable loss in eubellience and primal energy? Either way, the shift is palpable, particularly when you land on what amounts to the album’s lone misstep, the bizarre “deathproof”. O-kay…and what were you guys thinking with that one, again?

That said, when you land on a track like “midnight woman”, “devil woman” or even “master serpent”, newcomers may wonder what the hell we’re on about here. “This is some primo Sabbath-school stoner doom, what the hell are you saying?”

Nonetheless, it’s easily noticed…just wish they’d given a proper release to the earlier material for an easy side by side comparison to those who don’t take the
lazier, lower sonic quality route of ‘digital only’ as a habit.

Me, I’m eagerly waiting for my copy of the CD on this one…and hoping for a proper release of the EP to come.

Top notch stuff, once again – go grab yourself a copy, you will not regret it.

SOLDATI – Doom Nacional  (Argonauta Records) (April 24)

Argentina drops this power trio, the mainman of which used to front a band called Las Natas, if that rings any bells for anyone.

It’s hard to describe the sound here – songs and riffs drone on, eventually bearing the trancelike vibe of Monster Magnet, just without all the psychedelic Hawkwind space rock overlays and noise effects. But the actual riffing is somewhat akin to a cross between Blues for the Red Sun-era Kyuss as crossed with Hour of 13’s dark Sabbathian feel…and is something about all this coming off vaguely Sleeplike as well?

It’s all easily recognizable, but just as bits and bobs swiped from various sources, brought together in the service of a very different sound and approach…you know, the way musicians are supposed to work.

It’s more stoner in base orientation than it ever is doom in any proper sense…but even saying that feels wrong, as if it only tells half the story. Regardless, just know that it works, and works rather well.

Whatever this man is smoking, I think we can all use a hit.

THE BLACK LEGACY – Black Flower (Argonauta Records) (April 24)

Milanese “biker rock”, or so the promo materials would have it…and yeah, they’ve definitely got that sorta bluesy heavy rock/arguably metallic Circus O’ Power/Zodiac Mindwarp vibe down pat.

Fans of anything from Buckcherry and Zakk Wylde to CoC may find something of value herein, though truth be told I found it something of a shrug of the shoulders.

Listenable, might stick around for a few songs if they took the stage at a bar I was at…but certainly wouldn’t wind up front row and asking about merch, or even sticking around for the full set, to be honest.

OCEAN CHIEF – Den Tredje Dagen (Argonauta Records) (April 17)

Blackened doom?

All growly vox and atonal droning riffs with some open note business, it’s hard to see the connection to doom in any of its accepted variants beyond “it’s slow and kinda heavy”.

The closest this gets is on the instrumental bonus track “dimension 5”, and if you aren’t a CD buyer, you don’t even get that minor nod to convention.

Sorry. But no way.

WHIZZZZ!!!!

yeesh, that just…melted this ugly black goo all over the ground. P-U!

um, somebody want to call the hazmat folks to do some environmental remediation?  I think we just tried to turn the Flaming Pile of Dead Bards into a superfund site…yeesh!

GRAVEYHARD – Pathbuilder (Argonauta Records) (April 17)

Italian sludge metal with strong grunge elements and some terrible belch-bellow vox.

The riffing is heavy, the production’s pretty good and if you can stand a heaping helping of 90’s heavy rock vibe (think anything from CoC to Foo Fighters here, just without the odd quirks that distinguish grunge and its offshoots from a more straightforwardly driving distorted rock.

Admittedly, even if you dig this kind of thing, matters do tend to wear out their welcome and become overly samey around the title track, only to pick up with the album’s most aggressive number “chainsaw” as a closer – so they come in relatively strong, crash and burn, then return for a proper sendoff.

I was OK with this for the most part…but those vocals!

I advise you, paisano, in the words of our fellow Italian Frank Zappa.

“Shut up and play your guitar!”

Decidedly subpar microphone skills aside, not bad overall – might have worked better as an EP (“burn forever” through “dejection”, close on “chainsaw” and drop the rest).

MEGATHERIUM – GOD (Argonauta Records) (April 10)

Long, slow, atonally experimental tracks that eventually turn into some very 90’s grungelike riffs and whining if essentially clean toned vocals that bring Layne Staley and Alice in Chains to mind.

I guess if you could have appended this guy’s vocals to Graveyhard and took those terrible vox and used them in Megatherium, you’d wind up with a 3 1/2-4 star review on Graveyhard and a zero star on Megatherium.

As it stands, these guys have nothing but a vocalist going for them…and Graveyhard has little more than a crappy vocalist working against them.

MOLASSES BARGE – A Grayer Dawn  (Argonauta Records) (April 10)

Wayne Massey!  Wow, I loved the early Sisters of Mercy and the earlier Mission UK material…wonder if he still sports that silly hat after all these years?

oh. sorry, that was Wayne Hussey.  Hmm…OK, so there’s a Wayne Massey that was a soap opera actor turned country singer, sort of like a low rent variant of Rick Springfield, I guess…

what?  You mean this isn’t that” Wayne Massey?  Geez…who the hell is this, then?

well, okay, then! Looks like we have a stoner rock group out of Pittsburgh with some extra thick tones and a bit of drone feel to them. Not what I’d consider stoner doom by a long shot, but iffy vocals and listenable if unspectacular strong whiff of grunge riffs and drumming definitely place it somewhere in the stoner/sludge orbit.

Listenable enough, but unspectacular and not really my idea of doom. I’d rate ’em as “fair”, and advise “watch this space” – they may improve with time and experience.

OCKRA – Infinite Patterns (Argonauta Records) (March 20)

Progressive doom, though hardly in the same stellar category as Giant-era Ahab.

In fact, these Gothenburg Swedes seem to be shooting more for the throwback sounds of vintage prog you’d find with Gentle Giant – check out the midsection of “ruins” and you’ll hear it instantly.

“Pendulum of time” even leans a bit Yes, with its droning chant vox and sprechtgesang…are they more interested in telling a story (in Swedish, mind), or making a piece of music, here?

That said, there’s certainly a bit of the modern to their approach – those looking for more of a prog/power metal feel need look no further than “invisible walls”, with its bouncy, winding midtempo tremelo riff.

Yours truly’s own tastes leave “ruins” and “invisible walls” as the winning moments herein, while “pendulum of time” and to a lesser extent “in a dream” come off rather flat by comparison…but “pendulum’s” sheer pretentiousness aside, nothing here is less than listenable for the prog fan, or prog metal fan in particular.

 

KITE – Irradiance (Argonauta Records) (March 27)

You know, this one kicked off for me with closer “mistweaver”, with all its Alice In Chainslike stoned chanting vox, so it was with some shock that those perfectly shite screamo vox kicked in to destroy the mood and any value in this one inside of the first 2 minutes.

Riffs are pretty simplistic, bar some syncopated business from the drummer on “reveries”, but come on with those fucking vocals!

Gah.

Right to the flames, with ye.

Do not pass go, do not collect 1-3c per download.

You know, all that screaming seems strangely more appropriate when it’s accompanying an agonizing demise in the flames of the Pyre of Dead Bards…

…or as my old pal and rival bandleader Santino once introduced one of his songs about the Puritan era witch trials: “smell the flesh”.

Next?

BRANT BJORK – S/T (Heavy Psych Sounds) (April 10)

We’d covered the erstwhile Kyuss/Fu Manchu drummer a few times in these pages, for his Vista Chino and Low Desert Punk Band and here he is back again, with another batch of rather authentic sounding retro 1970’s heavy rock/stoner tracks.

Bjork himself comes off as an entirely different experience than his former bands or solo work from former members like John Garcia, and while some of it certainly comes from the looser, funkier syncopation that comes with being a (competent) drummer, it also comes down to his likeably laid back, if clearly untrained vocals.

It’s like letting one of your pals who can carry a tune when driving around in the car in front of a studio mic. Yep, he pulls it off, it’s got a charming naivete…but you can’t seriously compare this to a professional vocalist of any skill. But again – it’s likeable, and he gives off the distinct vibe of being seriously laid back if not half baked throughout, which suits the material to a T.

Damn good stuff, he always manages to deliver something solid.

THE SONIC DAWN – Enter The Mirage (Heavy Psych Sounds) (March 27)

And here’s another band adopting a similarly light and laid back vocal approach to Bjork, but as appended to a decidedly garage rock leaning psychedelia retro-1966-8 sound otherwise.

Somewhere between The Cyrkle (“young love, old hate”), the Gram Parsons Byrds, The Grateful Dead (“hits of acid”), Strawberry Alarm Clock (“loose ends” and even something like the Amboy Dukes (“soul sacrifice”) or the later Electric Prunes (“sun drifter”) falls this Danish act, who come off so po faced and accurate to template, you’d think this one was some vinyl hunter’s unearthed obscurity from the heart of the hippie era, rather than a 2020 new release.

Dead on. You can’t seriously give this one anything but love.