All musicians have to cope with the amount of music similar to their own. There are thousands of bands in any given sub-genre: how do you distinguish yourself? Lately, I’ve felt this stronger with stoner-doom than any other metal genre. Every band peddles 15-minute songs of plodding cyclical riffing, various sorts of harshly belted vocals, and a slow stomping rhythm section. The bands that do anything different are far and few between, and quickly drop from their bin into a differently labeled one, like sludge-doom or progressive-something. Space Witch are pretty deeply entrenched in their stoner-doom categorization. These fellows from Stoke-on-Trent, UK are going unto the breach with their second album. Can they buck the trend of similar-sounding in the genre?
Arcanum consists of four lengthy tracks full of plodding cyclical riffing, particularly in the lengthiest songs, which bookend the album. These two, opener “Cosmonoid” and closer “Battle Hag,” are notable for being completely instrumental. Almost half an hour of heaving instrumental repetition is a lot to bear, and indeed Space Witch fail to live up to the challenge of writing themselves out of such a conundrum. “Cosmonoid” drags itself across the pavement of a single riff for its first eight minutes, before changing into second gear and crawling slightly quicker through the remainder of its 15-minute total on the back of a second riff. The main attempt to dispel the affliction of such dire dreariness is performed by the electronic section, a wonky and warbling mess of synthesizers that wanders in free-form across the recycled wasteland of riffs, taking several cues from Pink Floyd at their most spacey, reflecting “A Saucerful of Secrets” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” It merely serves as a momentary distraction, as it wanders too much to take a leading role, save for the canned choir near the end of the track.
Things don’t get quite as dire as the opener again but expect no miracles. “Astro Genocide” initially seems to be more down-tuned instrumental riffing beneath Floydian synths, but actual lead guitar work soon begs my attention, and when the riffs snap awake like a hypnotist gave his cue, actual life flows back into the album. Some harshly belted vocals add a touch of variation, and the song ties off with a riff that’s almost Swedish death metal. While neither is spectacularly executed, they both do more to liven up the album than any of the synthesizers. Side B is comprised of “Hex Solaris” and “Battle Hag,” which contains the same amount of ideas as side A but spread them a little more evenly over the two songs. The closer in particular sounds more lively, not just in pacing but in writing and execution, despite the lack of vocals.
It’s not enough, though. Arcanum can not hold interest going through the familiar motions of every stoner-doom band below the top tier. Opening with the longest and poorest track certainly does them no favors there, but nothing on the remainder of the album redeems Space Witch. The production is fairly typical: loud and heavy, and a bit muddled in the low registers, giving it a mild case of swampiness. The instruments pierce the marshes easily though, and there is no discernible clipping in the master which stops well short of crushed.
I’m left with the strong feeling that, like many bands in the genre, this is not intended for spinning at home. Space Witch don’t play so you can sit at home and crochet with a cat in your lap listening to their tunes. Arcanum can’t hold my attention because it was never supposed to. This is music to be played in a small venue with pot smoke billowing out the eaves. In that setting, the four tracks on Arcanum will induce that lovely trance-like state where you’re feeling the music as much as you hear it (because your diaphragm won’t stop rattling.) But that doesn’t work on an album, and it doesn’t work sober. In a clear-headed and analytical state, Arcanum does not hold up. But feel free to alter your state of mind and observe the difference. For science, of course.