Dead Heavens’ debut, Whatever Witch You Are, opens with the phase-shifted “Rainbow of the Ohm Chart,” an instrumental track that sets the stage for the album’s psychedelic tone. Drummer Drew Thomas furthers the connection with a specific suggestion: “What the world needs now is for more people to take psychedelic drugs.”
One doesn’t need to drop acid to enjoy Whatever Witch You Are, but it probably couldn’t hurt. The album offers sultry blues full of detuned guitars, lots of wah wah and flange pedals, along with Walter Schreifels’ deadpan yet luscious vocals. In fact, his voice is so pure and effortless that it helps verses, choruses and bridges melt into each other, even as subtle chord changes propel the songs into more pop-friendly territory.
There are several extended guitar jams on the album, yet they are more laid-back than the quasi-punk and neo-psych of bands like Fuzz or Wand. Whatever Witch You Are sometimes seems more like the trash-rock of Redd Kross circa 1985 or early Dinosaur, Jr., albeit filtered through a dense fog of pot smoke. With the exception of the eight-minute “Gold Tooth,” the sprawling indulgence of Dead Heavens’ bohemian sensibilities has been condensed into seven bite-sized nuggets that could be played on the radio, at least if the band’s witchy vibe was the kind of sound that was in vogue these days.
Indeed, the title of the album is perfect for the band’s liminal, loosely cultish vibe, one that is enhanced by the vocal performances. Schreifels’ falsetto in “Basic Cable” gives the song an eerie, vaguely threatening quality, while the harmonies in “Bad Luck Child” are positively ghostly.
“Away from The Speed” could be about an addiction to fast cars, but lines like “It feels like I’m being possessed by the devil” suggest otherwise. Here, a monkey on one’s back is more like a werewolf: “Turn me loose / no, tie me up.” Schreifels’ androgynous vocals are even more beguiling here, elevating the album from something that could be construed as nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia into its own beautiful beast.
The witchy blues of “The Moon Will Listen (But Not the Sun)” evoke the atmosphere of a nighttime sabbat, perhaps one led by the hippie version of Lana Del Rey’s bad-girl persona. Tellingly, Schreifels has suggested that listeners embrace “a strong, strange, powerful woman who freaks out people precisely for all her powers, and not just in love, but acceptance in a modern world that can often isolate us, and make us feel like freaks. For the full 36 minutes of this record, we want people to be able to embrace this freakishness.”
Whatever Witch You Are is certainly an album that will appeal to the freaks, in the truest sense of the word. It’s less macho than stoner rock, but more elegant than garage punk. For example, despite its length and sometimes ridiculous lyrics (“Depth of perception is so deep”), “Gold Tooth” goes down as easy as a fine whiskey, due to an unforgettable guitar melody and Schreifels’ occasional falsetto.
The rhythm section of “Silver Sea” beckons listeners to get up and groove while delivering what could be seen as a distillation of Dead Heavens’ ethos and an accurate description of their sound: “Follow the in-between experience to liberate you.” The song shifts fluidly into the final track “Experience,” and its repeated refrain of “and the sea calls.” It feels like floating on an ocean where Dead Heavens are the sirens summoning you into the unknown. Just give in and let yourself go.
Whatever Witch You Are was released by Dine Alone Records on June 16.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.