With the amount of duplicate band names out there, it’s a small miracle Kal-El are the only ones naming themselves after the Man of Steel’s Kryptonian name.1 Perhaps others fear being smacked with the lawbook by a team of lawyers from DC (the comic book publisher, not the city). However, if you were hoping for a Superman-themed metal album, I’ll have to disappoint you. If you couldn’t guess from the collage disaster of a cover or the title, Kal-El prefer their sci-fi themes to be of the retro schlock variety, and they bring it in stoner doom form with mountains of fuzz and Hammond keyboards. But is the music itself of a higher quality or does the schlockiness extend to the tunes as well?
Kal-El certainly know their stoner doom songwriting, that much is true. The songs move at a brisk mid-pace, the doom factor more evident in the sheer amount of weight the sound here encompasses than in the pacing. Laden with unearthly measurements of downtuning and coarse fuzz, the riffs sound gargantuan, pounding through the speakers like mountains come to life. The hooks are plentiful and easy to absorb; this is less a thinking man’s album as it is one to absorb, evidently through the sternum. When the speed does slow down, such as on “Incubator,” the sound turns positively tectonic. The significant presence of the bass, itself imbued with thick layers of static and distortion, certainly helps in this regard.
But one factor kills the mood right quick: the vocals. They are by far the worst element on the platter and swiftly diminishes my enjoyment for the material at hand. They are nasal, reedy and consistently inconsistent, possessing no power and commanding no presence. Additionally, I am forced to wonder whether they simply quiver continuously or whether the strangely garbled effect was done in production, for whatever reason. It sounds like he’s underwater, and not in a “crushing ocean depths” fashion but rather in a “slipped in the kiddie pool” fashion. The frequent double-tracking really does not support his case either, giving him less body rather than more and underlining the whispy quality.
Sufficiently excellent material might be able to overcome such a demerit, but it doesn’t quite live up to that level. It’s a nice enough album, songwriting-wise, but is sorely lacking in anything to surprise or set itself apart from the glut of stoner doom bands already present on the scene. The occasional Hammond organ is a welcome addition, but rather old hat as far as the style goes, and the sporadic solos consist mostly of wah-pedal abuse. The one thing this album does have going for it is the aforementioned belly-stomping wall of sound. Ignoring the thin vocals, the production is thick and grimy, with fuzz piled on top of fuzz, but without making things too muddy. The bass deserves another mention in this regard, as it makes a huge difference in its balance of clarity and dirty, crackling power. It even makes the cover of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” feel fresh.
Alas, production alone does not a great album make. Though there’s merit in its simplistic, catchy hooks and massive weight, the unfortunate truth is Witches of Mars would have been significantly more enjoyable with a different vocalist. Not just because he’s not very good, but because he takes away from the gut-crushing weight of the bass-heavy production. Though I am usually a fervent believer of the “less is more” creed, and I enjoy strong contrast in songwriting, here is an exception to the rule, where I feel obliged to join Giles Corey and make my final request: more weight.