Music by VICE

Witch Mountain Is Still Reinventing Itself After 20 Years

The Oregon doom metal institution's self-titled new album is its first with firebrand vocalist Kayla Dixon, and perhaps its most crucial.

by Nilina Mason-Campbell
May 23 2018, 4:29pm

Photo by Whitey McConnaughy

Midnight. The witching hour. A period of transition, where night manages to occupy two realms; both the darkness and a new day. So it’s appropriate that this is where Witch Mountain’s new self- titled album begins its journey. Set into motion with a churning riff, the song “Midnight,” opens the album, serving as an introduction to a new era for the doom metal band with vocalist Kayla Dixon at their helm. Half a minute in, her voice first appears as a bluesy wail, then spiking and soaring before transforming into a menacing growl out of nowhere, all delivered with an unrelenting dominance, powerful and feral at the same time. Her voice is an entity in itself, a force that asserts itself and demands to be reckoned with.

Dixon’s vocal abilities and ease of transitions can catch a listener off guard and even her own band members. “When she laid down a scratch track in the studio and was going back and forth between the cleans and the dirties, our producer Billy and us were just sitting there laughing with joy,” recalls guitarist Rob Wrong of a memorable recording session that was just business as usual for Dixon. Beside him, drummer and co-founder Nathan Carson smiles in agreement. We’re seated across from each other, sharing nachos on an outdoor picnic bench in outer SE Portland, Oregon, blocks from their practice space where they’ll later convene as a full band. They both speak with an obvious, fresh enthusiasm for Witch Mountain, as renewed as the vibrant plant life surrounding us.

“For her that was just a scratch track, and we’re just like ‘most people in the world can’t do this.’ For Dixon, the possibility to cross styles and alternate between clean and screaming vocals is “a breath of fresh air.” To her, it’s less about the feat and more so reveling in the flexibility. Whereas she was screaming 90 percent of the time in her last metal band, Demons Within, she’s been able to reflect her multi-genre background across the span of this new album.

Save for a stray, one-off single, it’s been four years since the Witch Mountain’s last release and four years since Dixon joined the lineup. But there’s hardly been downtime in between. After drafting Dixon, the band has set out on multiple tours over the past few years, playing alongside the likes of Danzig and YOB. However, following the departure of their previous vocalist Uta Plotkin, drummer Nathan Carson admits staying active was hardly even the plan. ”We assumed we’d be off for about three years. It just didn’t seem like we could replace her. It wasn’t even the plan to try.”

But a Facebook post caught Dixon’s eye and within days she and the band were trading instrumentals and video auditions. She joined them on a tour shortly after that and a month later she traded coasts to make the move to the Pacific Northwest. As quick as the process was, Carson says “we didn’t really feel any rush. But then when the right people just turned up that quickly, then all of a sudden we had the chance to continue the momentum we had.”

The past few years have proved invaluable to Dixon, allowing her to find her footing within the band and come into her own. “I’m naturally a very shy person,” she admits. “It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to open up more.” It’s a transformation she attributes directly to being on the road. “I think just from being exposed to so many different people from being in bands and touring, which is something I had never done before. I had the same group of people that I knew and trusted, the people I’d see on a day-to-day basis. When you’re on the road you’re meeting different people every night, you learn to adapt to new people much easier.”

Carson and Wrong noticeably lack possessiveness over a project they’ve been shepherding for more than twenty years. It’s also the first project Dixon’s written for to actually be performed live. “We were cautiously optimistic that she would be able to just step in and make her debut album,” says Carson. And indeed, she was. Writing to demos created by Wrong, she claims credits on four of album’s five songs, the other being a cover. She’s been able to imbue the band with her identity through penmanship while tackling her personal life and character of discipline gleaned from growing up in theatre.

Even with a highly trained theatrical background, the emotions she channels in song are anything but staged, whether they’re her words or someone else’s. She so thoroughly embodies their cover of “Mechanical World” by taking on Spirit’s lyrics as if they were her own, adapting and adopting its themes like a second skin. Her voice infuses the words with a passion so visceral you’d think she was sharing an autobiographical tale.

While Dixon admits she wants listeners to find their own meaning in the songs, the scenes she paints in her own lyrics come directly from her personal life. The album closes with “Nighthawk,” an engrossing epic that crosses various sonic landscapes over the course of its fourteen minutes. Guided by Carson’s procession-like drumming, the track marches forth into Wrong’s charged chords, laying the foundation on which Dixon treads, her voice easing its way onto the song, curling to hug Wrong’s heavy riffs, then soaring in tandem as he hits a climatic solo three minutes in... yet the song’s journey is really only just beginning.

“Nighthawk” marries the best qualities of all the songs to precede it, including a choir built from Dixon’s howls, bringing to mind the folk-tinged, harmony-driven standout “Hellfire.” Midway through “Nighthawk” her range is on display all at once, with dueling octaves aligning, before her snarl emerges to takeover. Throughout the song she brings life to lyrics that navigate darkness, self-determination and redemption. Thematically, it’s about “doing away with any thoughts, ideas, or behaviors that don’t serve you,” she says. “It’s about murdering it, burying it, and saying goodbye.” And at its root, “that song is about my dad.”

“I never really knew him,” she muses. “I haven’t seen him since I was five. It was a very abusive family dynamic, which is obviously never good. It’s about that, leaving it in my past, saying I don’t identify with you in any way, shape, or form.” Despite the weight of the situation, revisiting the experience and emotions isn’t dragging her down. Performing it has proven cathartic. “Every night on stage I get to clear that out. I imagine at some point it may become about something else for me, take on another meaning. For now that’s what it’s about.”

Dixon’s delivery in the live arena is multidimensional. There’s a duality at play on stage that Wrong describes as “really angelic and really demonic. It’s all just aspects of her creative performance and persona.” For their audiences, it’s proven equally as captivating as it is intimidating. Carson recalls an instance with a spooked fan near the end of their tour with Yob in Tucson. “I went out in the courtyard afterwards, and there was this girl out there asking “is she gone?”” That reaction is quite a different takeaway than Dixon’s own. In the midst of chaos, the stage has offered her comfort since childhood. “It’s my safe space in a lot of ways,” she says.

In preparation for their upcoming appearance at Northwest Terror Fest, they run through the entirety of their set during an evening-time practice at their space in SE Portland. Even in the dim, no-frills setting, with performance elements stripped away, Dixon is dynamic. “For me, it’s getting on stage and having a personal experience,” she says of her showmanship, it just happens to be in public. “I take it inwards and then let it go outwards.

From Witch Mountain’s origin in the mid-90s to now, the doom metal scene has steadily evolved, too. “When we first started there was one doom band in each state, and that was the circuit. We all knew each other,” recalls Carson. In the years since, they’ve seen the scene expand beyond measure. Even in the shifting landscape, Witch Mountain stands out. “I like to think that at this point we really don’t sound like any other bands in this style. It feels great to be able to say that in a style of music that has become so saturated and actually even hip at this point.”

As for the cause of doom’s increasing appeal, Carson admits it’s a complex equation, but point to a few indicators. “Bands like Sunn and Isis and many others that were doing metal in a different way at the turn of the millennium helped make people take metal more seriously in a more of an art-gallery type style, that it’s not just knuckle-dragging suburban people that play heavy metal. I think the fact that so many more women have gotten interested in it has helped the scene immensely, so many more women participate.”

Aside from a handful of internet trolls slow to warm to her membership in the band post-Plotkin, Dixon says she’s encountered little resistance in the scope of things in regards to gender. “I haven’t run into too much sexism, yet. Which I’m grateful for. I imagine it’s going to happen at some point. I think there’s a certain number of people that are drawn to this kind of music for the wrong reasons. Some people who only hear the aggression in the music and none of the other layers or affects in the music. Those are the people who turn out to be the racists and sexists, people addicted to aggression. The angry people. I haven’t run into many of those.

“That brings me a lot of hope,” she continues. “There are so many female vocalists now and female metal musicians now, on all instruments. It’s become more normal now, which is great.”

Dixon occupies an intersection of space, not only as a woman in metal, but as a woman of color, which is something she’s especially conscious of. “There’s not too many of us. I can think of maybe three or four off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many more, but that’s what I can think of. But I’m always aware of it. Racism is a big issue in metal, unfortunately. It needs to be spoken about and addressed. I’ve taken it as my responsibility to say something with my platform, the small platform I have. I don’t want to stay silent, that’s just not me.”

Dixon most wants to communicate a message of inclusion with her seat at the table. “Everyone should be allowed to go to a metal show and everyone should be allowed and accepted in this community. That’s really important to me.”

After settling our tab at the small hole-in-the-wall bar we’ve been camped out at for the past hour, Dixon offers me a ride home to where I’m staying. We traverse Portland under a curtain of rain, the quiet city nothing but a foggy blur beyond the windshield. Nearing our destination, a song by Oceans of Slumber comes on the stereo, prompting an exclamation from Dixon. “See,” she says with a smile in recognition of another metal band fronted woman of color.

The acknowledgement seems as much a reminder for herself as for the world at large. There’s power to be had in reminders, in visibility, in numbers. And with the release of Witch Mountain, Kayla Dixon’s reach is only increasing. Witch Mountain may be on the cusp of releasing their latest album, but it’s still a first with this lineup. The band’s latest incarnation has breathed new life into the project, pushing their songwriting and ambitions to new levels as bigger opportunities continue to reveal themselves. Twenty years in, but on the precipice of a new day.

Catch Witch Mountain on tour:

May 31 Seattle, WA North West Terror Fest
June 23 Portland, OR Star Theater #
July 11 Sacramento, CA Blue Lamp
July 12 San Francisco, CA Bottom of the Hill
July 13 San Diego, CA Til Two
July 14 Los Angeles, CA Lexington
July 15 Phoenix, AZ Club Red
July 16 Albuquerque, NM Launchpad
July 18 Austin, TX Lost Well
July 19 Denton, TX Dan’s Silverleaf
July 20 Memphis, TN HiTone
July 21 Knoxville, TN Pilot Light
July 22 Atlanta, GA The Earl
July 23 Asheville, NC Mothlight
July 25 Chapel Hill, NC Cat’s Cradle
July 26 Richmond, VA Strange Matter
July 27 Baltimore, MD Metro
July 28 Philadelphia, PA Kung Fu Necktie
July 29 Brooklyn, NY Saint Vitus
July 31 Boston, MA Great Scott
August 1 Portland, ME Geno’s
August 2 Montreal, QC Vitrola
August 3 Ottawa, ON House of Targ
August 4 Toronto, ON Garrison
August 5 Buffalo, NY Mohawk
August 7 Lexington, KY Green Lantern
August 8 Chicago, IL Reggie’s
August 9 Omaha, NE Lookout Lounge
August 10 Denver, CO Hi-Dive
August 11 Salt Lake City, UT Kilby Court