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At last, a record that takes on the nebulous new genre of witch house. In No Witch, The Cave Singers declare they just can't take it anymore – it's too damn grim. Okay, that's not true. I don't know their feelings on cacklecore, or whatever it's called now, but The Cave Singers do dwell on the brighter side of paganism. They're earthy, not occult. Guitarist Derek Fudesco describes their music as a 'group hug'. In past albums, they've mainlined warmth and hope from their folk roots, and they're not scared to be comforting voices in the dark, as opposed to creepy ones. And even while pissing on campfires and dancing on graves in 2007's Invitation Songs and 2009's Welcome Joy, they evoked a kind, bountiful universe. No Witch, indeed.
But something's different. Maybe The Cave Singers thought that if they got any more warm and woodsy – which, by god, they could, I'd love it – they'd get mistaken for hippies. Or pussies. ‘Cos they're not, alright? They're growling, grizzly men of the Pacific Northwest, with bellies and tats and beards and sweat. Roar. So heed the gongs. Watch as their cave rattles and the earth shakes and gives way to a mighty chasm. Because now Sunn O))) and Boris producer Randall Dunn is at the helm, and The Cave Singers are bringing the rock.
It takes two songs for them to get going, but when they do, ‘Black Leaf’ is far more pulsating and primal than anything they've created before, even Welcome Joy's stormy ‘At the Cut’. The shift continues with ‘Falls’, a sparse slinky sliver of minor key moodiness, which, unusually for The Cave Singers, saves the injection of warmth until the very end. And ‘No Prosecution If We Bail’, the album's closer, is a thumping bluesy rocker that makes it very clear, in case you weren't listening, that The Cave Singers can now ROCK.
Problem is, I've just named No Witch's weakest songs. They're still enjoyable, although much of that enjoyment is found in the controlled anger that slides around in, and sometimes bursts out of, Pete Quirk's gravelly voice. But when you look at The Cave Singers's songcraft, the rockers on No Witch use exactly the same template as the folkier songs. A gripping melody lures you in, then the reedy vocals crop up, then drummer Marty Lund's controlled rhythms get going. Arrangements expand around the three minute mark, then inevitably tighten towards the end.
When this template works, it's beautiful. The best songs here have the hypnotic mix of grittiness and sweetness that defines The Cave Singers at their best. ‘Clever Creatures’ and ‘Haller Lake’ are beguiling, evoking the kind of warm comfort you – at least, I – get on summer evenings when I realise that not everything is as perfect as I'd like, but that it's more than good enough. Ahh, summer. The rousing ‘Haystacks’ gets its gospel on so well that it's hard not to let loose a few spirited handclaps as you listen. And when Quirk sings “let's take tonight, my little one” on ‘Distant Sures’, it makes me gulp each time I hear it. But as with Invitation Songs and Welcome Joy, the same formula yields as much pap as greatness. Which begs the question – how can they use it again and again and be either incredible or forgettable?
I don't know, but I hope they see that experimenting with heavier sounds doesn't mean evolution, when nothing in No Witch tops anything they've done before. I hope they'll realise they don't need to plunder much more garage rock to be great. I think they need to chain, like, Popol Vuh, until they realise their rough and raw version of hippie mysticism still has places to go. Stay lovely, boys! And then if they can figure out how to untangle what's fascinating and gorgeous from what's bland, they'll be onto a winner. Three albums in, they haven't yet – but I trust The Cave Singers – I think their next might be the one.