Ah, stoner/doom…how easy it is to fall under your numbing spell, how simple it is to get lost in your repetitive riffing, your lethargic tempos, your incantations of despair. And yet…how difficult it is to stand out in an increasingly crowded pack of grunged out bearded weirdos intent on bludgeoning the music world with another riff on Sleep, or Electric Wizard, or Weedeater, or…well, take your pick. By keeping one foot firmly planted in the more esoteric 70s astral prog sonics of bands like Hawkwind even as they lumber through the fuzzed out landscapes molded by Sleep and the other aforementioned bands, Space Witch manage to carve out their own identity with new album Arcanum, a spacey, tripped out sludge through a muddy galaxy of distortion and electronics.
Founded in 2007 by guitarist and all around sonic architect Darren Lee Rowlands, the UK-based band (out of Stoke on Trent) released their first demo in 2008 and a few splits and singles before their debut EP The Alchemy Paradox in 2013. The earmarks of what would become more focused and matured on the new album are already evident: long, paced songs, an emphasis on synths and electronic to accentuate the glacial riffle, and an ear to the past without being an instant Black Sabbath devotee (although check out the dirge on “Hang the Witch” at about the eight minute mark and tell me that’s not an evil-sounding Iommi homage). Numerous lineup changes kept a rotating cast moving by the time Space Witch’s first LP (s double, at that) came out, but their self titled album is a monster that wisely kept a consistent menace in the songwriting, electronics playing a subtle, disorienting role – check the odd bird-like sounds toward the end of “Worship the Void” – and riffs that felt like molten lead.
That core: Rowlands, Dan Mansfield on drums and Peter Callaghan on electronics and (occasional) vocals is in place on Arcanum, and the time spent as a unit pays off dividends in the songwriting on the album. Composed of four tracks with the bookends alone accounting for almost half an hour’s worth of music there’s always a danger of this music falling into monotony. But the growth of the band (rounded out by Tomas Cairn on bass) allows for the repetition to gradually morph and evolve into new and ever-shifting soundscapes. Opener “Cosmonoid” sets the tone for the other tracks, a steadily building riff that for nine minutes ebbs and flows in subtle electronic waves before spilling into a cresting wave of guitar fuzz. A huge credit to the success of the song goes to drummer Mansfield, who has a light, deft touch reminiscent of Chris Hakius of Sleep and OM. Take this almost jazz like approach to the drums with Callaghan’s more upfront electronic and synth work and Space Witch touch on the spirit and essence of 70s experimental rock just as much as they do the current stoner/doom craze.
Things gets a little more anarchic and weird on the short (well, six minutes) “Astro Genocide” with its off-kilter guitars and spoken word ending intertwined with its almost Voivod-ish take on the genre. The vocals continue on “Hex” as the song gets closest to what we might consider normal to the genre, but even there the way Rowlands shapes his guitar work around the drums and synths presents an almost organic tapestry of noise, but indicative of the outer space fringe Space Witch claim as their inspirational source. “Battle Hag” closes Arcanum with a nice meld of the two extremes Space Witch excel at: you get the trip space leads mixed in a chugging, skull rattling riff that relents for an extended jam before zooming back in to crack your mind wide open.
It’s good to see more bands reaching back into the past in order to really hone in on creating their own identity, rather than seeing what everyone else is doing and simply aping that vibe. The stoner/doom genre in particular is in danger of just becoming another cliche of fashion that blinds listeners to some really good music. Space Witch have consistently shown they can stand in the room with everyone, and what’s more with Arcanum they’ve again proved they can stand out while standing in. This is a big, mammoth album that reveals nuances with each listen, and it’s going to keep cropping up in my headphones through the year.