Metal bands replace lead singers with some regularity, but seldom does a transition come with the stakes before Portland doom favorites Witch Mountain on their upcoming Witch Mountain.
When the peerless Uta Plotkin announced in 2014 that she was leaving the band, it had come on the heels of a phenomenal run of albums, capped off by Witch Mountain’s breakthrough, Mobile of Angels. Given the band had been on hiatus for a minute before her entry, Plotkin’s sensational voice inarguably breathed life into Witch Mountain in 2009 and helped it score its greatest achievements over her career with the group. Major media coverage, big festivals and a devoted following were among the rewards for a brisk live performance schedule and steady output. Around the same time of Plotkin’s exit, bassist Charles Thomas, a replacement for longtime bass player Dave Hoopaugh, bid his farewell, too.
Five years and three critically lauded records later, seeing the departure of a presence that was, in Plotkin, the band’s identity would be the death of a lot of groups. Indeed, considering her formidable range, mastery of a blues/doom timing and stage presence, Plotkin would prove difficult to replace. It took about a year to get out fresh music with Kayla Dixon, the band’s new singer. Dixon, formerly of Cleveland metal act Demons Within and currently with Dress the Dead, has already generated many accolades. How Witch Mountain would translate her energy into the brogue of a 20-year-old band remained then a dynamic question.
Now back with an eponymous new album, Witch Mountain is in a place that feels at turns familiar as it does new. “Midnight” and “Burn You Down” were released last year as the initial songs with Dixon at the mic. They merged Witch Mountain’s characteristic heavy riffs with Dixon’s approach, which tread some of the paths Plotkin cut originally with her own enigmatic touch. A first listen revealed “Down” as a solid and safe entry; it offered the kind of arrangement and vocals old fans know and love, while introducing a new singer and influence. Dixon’s past work has solidly favored more of a groove metal vibe, and elements of that are revealed in “Midnight,” here the album opener.
Much will be said of Kayla Dixon’s addition to the band. As a classically trained artist, Dixon comes to the genre with an uncommon experience. Her performance is as good as you would expect. Still, it might be more fair to her and the group to pump the brakes on the effusive praise – such as a band member’s comparison of Dixon to Dio. At 23, it’s safe to say Dixon has yet to fully develop her voice and has a lot of growth ahead of her. Rushing her to the front row as the next big thing may be done as an acknowledgement, but prematurely doing so would just as easily derail her maturation as a lead. Nevertheless, she’s gifted, clearly.
The biggest difference fans may notice in the Dixon-fronted Witch Mountain is a turn away from the dirty blues/doom of Angels into a more inclusive rock sound. The somnolent “Hellfire” offers a jangle just south of Pacific Northwest fellow travelers Blitzen Trapper. The fuzzy, booming rhythm of “Mechanical World” is a twisty and head-turning romp far different than a lot of the band’s catalog, complete with a power riff about four minutes in. The album’s 14-minute conclusion, “Nighthawk,” is a complex track that gives you the best look at Dixon’s nascent muscle. From varied vocal styles to her ability to blend in seamlessly with the orchestration, she’s able to transform a song that might have needed some tightening into one that coagulates into something that honorably does Witch Mountain’s legacy justice.
Witch Mountain is, overall, a pleasing experience. Just turned enough to remind you this is a new chapter, while providing the kernel of what the Oregon mainstays do best.