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Bog Sounds - 75%

Arjunthebeast, September 19th, 2011

Oakland/Central Valley’s Swamp Witch (several steps above crazy cat lady and a few notches below arch necrosorceress) specialize in that most ancient and proud tradition of doom metal (with some dank stoner and grimy sludge thrown in). They released their first official foray into the bog this past month, entitled ‘Gnosis’ (from Gay Scientist Records). Likely referring to the Gnostic cults/Christians (or some other otiose believers…I couldn’t find lyrics!), the atmosphere on the EP is appropriately mystical and smoke filled. And much like their namesake would suggest, the three tracks in the sanctum chamber reach outwards into the dark for answers that are unspoken in the light of day (And consequently, are probably quite pale).

This dark hippie music is just that, an attempt to lean closer to topics and feelings that are beyond contemporary society’s peripheral vision. But instead of being birthed from the spiritual optimism and utopianism that fueled the counterculture of half a century ago, it draws its ire from a place that finds Elder Gods and nature as a force to be feared and reckoned with (which probably goes back just as far). A better way to look at it is that instead of the feminine influence of an ‘Earth mother’ being key; the masculine powers of the Indo-Aryan sky gods take precedence. After all, rain, wind, thunder, lightning and even fire can come from the sky. And as anyone who is into this humble genre will attest, metal is very much a physical elemental force that is all about movement, much like the war chariots of those ancient nomads and the forces they worshiped. Or perhaps, metal would like to be, which can lead to raised eyebrows and chuckles…Swamp Witch avoids this with some distance to spare.

The mix is somewhat unique because while there is fuzz in the production (those!), yet a very clean edge somehow attacks from that same haze. The low end of the mix is also somewhat clear as well, giving the crushing aspect of the rhythm guitars precedence. The base has a somewhat strange sound as well; it’s hard to hear over the rest of tracks (which is normal). The drums also are somewhat low, with the cymbals being somewhat higher. In metal of this kind, keeping everything working together is important, because at slower speeds competition between the units can become very noticeable and disrupt the flow. However, sticking to the pattern has its pitfalls as well. It all depends on if they band commits itself to the aesthetic, and once again, the Witch is in; toadstool, infant tears, cat hairs and all. Its heavy stuff all round no matter the ingredients!

The opening track ‘Novem’ (ber!) features one of those ‘oriental’ melodies that seem come up a lot these days (I guess it’s an actual chord pattern or scale or something?). The phrase returns several times to remind of the topic as the song progresses. This aspect of songwriting is probably a challenging hurdle to jump; if you use a motif too often, can it take away from the song? If you don’t establish one at all, can the song carry itself? Too little? From my own personal judgment, they got this aspect of their writing down pretty well, as the track does not lose itself and delivers what it promises. There are good feedback effects going on while the downbeat rumbles on. It’s not as good as the title track’s own personality, but more on that later.

Emerald Serpent’s main riff is pretty stoneresque and the track has a somewhat lighter touch than its ancestor even with its rock solid ebb and flow. It’s a real headbanger for sure, which makes it ideal for a live environment; but perhaps less vital in a one on one listening experience. This fact is what makes the more modern doom metal somewhat more impenetrable than the old school variety. More specifically, I think the explicit death metal influence has disappeared as the traits of the genre solidified (and much modern death metal fails at being heavy mind you). Much of this stems from the fact that much of the songs are breaking at the newer (perhaps?) sludgy pace as opposed to the chugging of the older groups from the 1980’s and early 1990’s. A lot of stuff from back then seemed more immediate, and it might have something to do with the time period, production methods, or even nostalgia (I wasn’t alive!). Seeing newer bands play showcases a heavy reliance this downbeat/crash cymbal dynamic, and while it succeeds in being heavy it can sometimes fail to lure me in after hitting the same way for several long tracks. These differences are somewhat cosmetic to some, but the attitude of the music is very different. The violence seems curbed in my ears, but perhaps that’s the point.

The most successful track on here is the title one, which digs deeper into the genre’s possibilities. Underneath the doom and gloom lies a sinister presence from the lead guitars that makes me feel something weightier than the first two tracks. A sense of anguish and fear really comes through here, and it is mesmerizing...all the way to the free form feedback (excuse my alliterations they are getting the better of me) of the intro and outro, the Converge like vocals and the well thought out production. The vocals break step with the rest of the pace at times, which gives me the impression that the music is about to implode, and it’s thrilling! A very pervasive sense of desolation resides in those moments, a glimpse of nothingness, which is thanks to the cool feedback usage. While feedback is used very often in this kind of music, here it works quite well because it is subdued. At first glance, it isn’t much different than the previous tracks, but allowing it to rest on its own strength makes the power much more concrete. The extended length of the track also helps and gives the group time to develop the themes.

Space is essential in a recording of this nature, and the group wisely chose to pursue this effect throughout. While not revolutionary, this aspect is used to great results here. To sound like your words and music are echoing across great voids of time and space onto the listener is a powerful weapon of war in the context of lending weight to your musical explorations. It is fair to say that many metal bands take this approach, because like history or war paintings of the past, the sounds are very much built upon a large canvas. And very often, a large scope leads to feelings of awe, which is another aspect of metal that makes it wonderful to its fans, who are basically a bunch of Romantics anyway (even if they won’t admit it!).

To recap, the layering of the title track belies much greater ambitions than the mid-paced, somewhat controlled, downbeat bashing of the two ‘intro’ tracks, and I would encourage the group to explore a somewhat more chaotic approach. I love slow, crushing metal, but some well-placed blast beats and additional instrumental effects can really blow up in a good way. Breaking out Yet, that’s just me, either way, keep it up gentlemen, the work is good.

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