Nowadays, J Mascis resembles a high school chemistry teacher. His long brown hair has gone grey and he wears chunky glasses in plastic frames that are less Buddy Holly and more Bill Haverchuck. His t-shirt drapes over a respectable amount of belly-pudge. The other members of his band Witch-a side-project from the on-going Dinosaur Jr reunion-resemble something scraped off the floor of Black Sabbath's1972 tour bus.
Witch grew out of an idea from J Mascis and his friend Doug Sweetapple, who wanted to create a hard rock band. Simple enough, but they made the very odd decision to ask Asa Irons and Kyle Thomas of the folk collective Feathers to round things out. Irons and Thomas are best known for their collaboration with the eccentric Devendra Barnhardt, but it should be mentioned that Thomas does have doom-metal roots in the band Exhorder. The pair brings enough power to the band that Mascis is virtually forgotten, but I suspect that this is probably what he intended. In all likelihood, Mascis wanted to revisit his days as a drummer for the hardcore band Deep Wound, but rather than succumb to nostalgia, he's helped create something young, fresh and out of his control.
On "Seer," the opening song on their eponymous debut album, Thomas sings,
I had no future until one day
I met a man
I took his hands
He was an old man, his hair was white...
He had a long beard
He took one look in his crystal ball
Saw it all.
Considering Mascis's stature as both an icon in his genre and a sublimely gifted musician, it's tempting to force this lyric into a paean to Mascis himself, one can't help but be left reeling by how accurately Witch captures the feeling of early-seventies heavy metal-especially when you consider the abject stupidity of your average Black Sabbath lyrics-"I looked through the window and surprised what I saw / Fairy boots were dancin' with a dwarf" (from Paranoid's "Fairies Wear Boots").
Many of the bands involved in the ongoing metal resurgence often err on the side of caution. Either you have The Fucking Champs who eschew lyrics altogether for the clean metal riffs of the eighties or Eagles of Death Metal who stick to the dunderheaded simplicity of the usual rock 'n' roll themes (granted, they do it very well-but they're not exactly pushing the evolution of a musical genre). A band closer in ethos to Witch is The Sword, but for all of the sturm und drang The Sword kicks up, Witch is by far the more passionate of the two.
Metal, when it's working well, creates a little world inside the song that envelops the listener like a cocoon. It's not so much an intellectual cocoon as an emotional one-one where you're free to either grok on the song, think about other shit or think about nothing. Witch achieves this by having Mascis pound away on the drums while allowing the guitarists room to explore variations on the same blues riff.
The first time I saw Witch was after drinking all day long in the Austin heat at SXSW. I mention the drinking only because it had been a long day and I had reached the point at which I was no longer drunk (just cranky) and was perhaps not in any shape to deal with complex thoughts. The previous band had relied upon loud synthesizers and beating drums played at mind-rending decibels. They also spent about forty minutes tuning up for a twenty-minute set, chasing away most of the crowd and leaving an audience comprised of only the true weirdos. My patience wasted, I was ready to throw in the towel and head home, but something told me to stick it out. So I did.
Witch seemed a bit nervous before they began. Thomas asked at one point if anyone in the crowd was from New England, to which he received no response. Mascis, never one to appear socially adept, allowed the psychedelic mural on his kick drum to do all of his talking. All told, Witch's seven-song repertoire offered only a handful of lyrics. The rest of the music was this immense cocoon of sound reminiscent of their forebears, but unique in that it doesn't have that tongue-in-cheek quality of many new metal acts. And when I'm talking about "new metal," I don't mean "nü-metal;" those guys who cup their hand around the end of a microphone and thrash around to get you pumped up for an afternoon of NCAA basketball. I mean the guys who are confident enough to allow the music to speak for itself.
Halfway through Witch's set, the guy standing in front of me turned around and smacked me on the arm to get my attention. "This is everything I love," he yelled through the waves of noise. I stuck my fist in the air and screamed as my eyes exploded and vitreous humour ran down my cheeks and my face melted from their sheer onslaught of power Witch was broadcasting. It was awesome.
Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.