Over the last five years or so, I’ve become acquainted with Nashville’s All Them Witches; reviewed a couple of their albums and gotten to feel like I know the band – or at least know what to expect from them from album to album. I figured I knew, for example, that their psychedelic/classic rock amalgam would end up being a consistent thread through the albums the band would release for the rest of their careers – now that they’d established themselves with the absolutely fantastic Dying Surfer Meets His Maker and Sleeping Through The War – but now the band has enriched their own story beautifully by walking out into the desert and returning with Nothing as the Ideal, the band’s sixth studio album.
As “Saturnine & Iron Jaw” opens the A-side of Nothing as the Ideal, listeners will become instantly aware that the album is not exactly what they expected it to be, but the surprise will not turn them off. After about a minute and a half of textural build, a very clean Stratocaster tone appears in the mix in much the same way Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat colored his performance of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” For some listeners, that relatable sound is instantly relaxing, Ben McLeod’s performance touches upon the stylistic earmarks of some of the greatest guitarists of all time (think David Gilmour during “Time,” Jimmy Page during “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” SRV on “Little Wing” and Hendrix on “Wind Cries Mary”) but also further develops the sound to surpass simply paying lip service to the greats. Rather, he adds a dynamic which expands on that dialogue by including both nerve and trepidation to the emotional/instrumental workup, AND THEN he flies in desert rock and metallic directions, right before singer/multi-instrumentalist Michael Parks Jr. steps to the mic. It is, in a word, an absolutely incredible opening.
As “…Iron Jaw” progresses, Parks keeps the emotionally mute, very Queens of the Stone Age-esque vocal tone rolling along to excellent effect. Lines like “Passed my time/ On holy days/ From my mind/
Sight and my taste”read as meaningless or unintelligible on the best days, yet will still see listeners hang on them, regardless. The “ballad of beautiful words” effect works here, and listeners will find they’re up for more as the song closes, easily.
The metallic angles and scabrous guitars hold up nicely as the charging, chugging vibe of “Enemy of My Enemy” plays out in follow-up to “…Iron Jaw.” There, the band doesn’t change the drive or direction of the pattern set by its predecessor, but ups the militant march of the beat and finds listeners playing along with it. They follow along too into the introspective instrumental “Everest” (which doesn’t bother with) the kind of epic, “high mountaintop” grandeur that one might expect of the song’s title but, rather, stays very low-key instead) before launching into the ten-minute, high-concept crunch of “See You Next Fall,” which closes the side.
Now, with “See You Next Fall,” All Them Witches really tap into something brilliant, within the context of “next generation” songwriting and textural arrangement. There, Parks finds a nasal, Jazz bass tone which locks into a riff-based style similar to the one Eric Avery used in the glory days of Jane’s Addiction while McLeod lays up and adds texture to the verses where other guitarists would gun for a bombastic solo. Because he does not do that, it leaves ample space in the mix for Parks to present lyrics which would rank among some of the best that alt-rock has offered in years (check out “If all is well, I can not tell/ Should I clear my throat?/ For to lay the?hammer?down/ I’ll wait and?see in spite of the/ Common misconceptions/ From?all the little clowns/ Let’s make some moves I’ve got the?news/ It’s?finally?here/ After begging like a dog/ I’ll flee?the scene to somewhere clean/ Or be left behind/ In the world of demigods”) in a beautiful and totally unencumbered, undistracted way. The results are easily the great centrepiece of the side and, after it finally finishes and the needle lifts (about ten minutes after the cut began) listeners will flip the record over, starry-eyed, to see what the flip-side might hold for them.
“See You Next Fall” closes the A-side of Nothing as the Ideal on an undeniable high point, and that will make the more spare and wooden-sounding introduction of “Children of Coyote Woman” do a double-take and re-adjust their expectations for – or at least how to perceive – the B-side of the album. There, the slow-moving and echo-inflected tone of Parks’ vocals feels both lonely and desperate and make listeners blink every time another instrument (be it a dusting of piano or the beating of drums) enters the mix – or even the sound of pelting rain (which enters too) – for that matter.
After “… Coyote Woman” ends on a crack of thunder, All Them Witches snap out of their rhuminations with the robust but introspective desert rock of “41”and goes from dark to black as pitch with the absolutely excellent “Lights Out”(one of this critic’s favorite lyrics for the whole album is “Burn the bridges, sell the ash” – which appears here) before brushing close to the sort of deep-bassed darkness last peddled by the Cowboy Junkies (in The Trinity Session days) or Morphine – when both of those bands were at the top of their game. In this case, the song takes half of its own runtime setting up its sense of desperation and malaise before breaking briefly and then making one last explosive two-minute burst to end the album’s running. They might not notice at first but, when “Rats In Ruin” does end dramatically with some screeching feedback, listeners may find that they’ll have to remember to breathe as the needle lifts from the record – and they may do so with a gasp.
After the needle has lifted and listeners have had a chance to really filter and absorb everything they’ve heard on Nothing as the Ideal, they’ll realize that while it takes a unique way around, it is an excellent record with a sound and vision which is very, very habit-forming. The mixture of psychedelia, metal and desert rock is noxious, but tastes really good; while the title aims toward something contrarian, Nothing as the Ideal is both far from nothing and a pretty ideal release for this band.