Florence Welch, Lorde, Joanna Newsom and Lana Del Rey.
Such were the names that headed off Lauren Entwistle’s piece detailing the modern popular music resurgence of the enchantress, the sorceress of song. In the ring of sorcerers, each has a corner. Each weaves in ode the history of something one might call a “movement,” but would do better in specifying it as “style,” to remove any temporal constraints that movements so often come up against—that which relies on an audience’s reciprocation against that which requires confidence alone—but I digress, on-stage sorceresses they are, it’s just pitiful that an obvious limit to characters meant she could only pull a handful of names from a cabal that includes Kate Bush, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Siouxsie Sioux, Goldfrapp and more—witchy-women who can all count themselves movers of independent music and desolate magic alike. But these women unravel their black silk and crystal meditations at-will and at varying degrees; Bat for Lashes and Goldfrapp seem the most likely candidates for Entwistle’s expanded roster of the modern chanteuse dressed to charm. Yet the most egregious omission? Warpaint—a band of not one, not two, not three, but four sorcières—a sect of nomadic occultists, resurrecting ghouls of failed relationships and weeping the life of a social exile, looping a thread through each heartbreak with their guitars, pedals, drums and banshee choirs. Summoning power from instrumentation and intermixing powerful incantations that cloud and obscure before a single line, vocal or guitar, launches likes a dagger through the sandblast wind—cutting through that desert storm and drenched in scarlet as if ripped through the heart of some unlucky bastard caught in their ritual. And forgive me, but that is to whom I give these next few lengthy paragraphs, because I am caught but don’t know if I am so unlucky for it.
It starts with a drum count, a one-two-three-four clap of the sticks and an ambient keyboard loop claws into the mix. A curling, mewling but no less possessed thing—ha!—sorry, a drummer loses the time, and the ladies instantly reset—momentum leveled, but not lost. It’s organic, like a keyboard mistaken for a place to sit, like the holler of “four already” to keep the mates steady, like the chatter of who’s taking whose solo before the piano keys go. Not missing a beat, one guitar groans like wind, another flutters like fabric on a clothesline. It’s a barrens-view gust, ominous and picking up speed—something soon comes—and, faster than it arrives on the horizon: a line, a line consumed by a rim, a rim consumed by a ridge, a ridge consumed by a crest, a crest consumed by a crown, a crown consumed by a wall, a wall consumed by a wave, a wave consumed by an abyssal maw. And then the maw consumes you—the listener. Sand slices, dust cuts, eyes a salted, watering mess, crunched furiously to keep needling minerals and particles from piercing through the lids. The liner notes never detail which witch plays the dusted guitar line through the middle of Warpaint’s introduction, and neither will audiences be able to distinguish Emily Kokal from Theresa Wayman as the vocal tracks whip around them, lick them with all the filth of a moribund valley and blind them from witnessing these four musicians of abandon-bound apocalypse weaving each incantation.
Watch them live and one might just lose their self in the dreambroken, sunburned life on the barren plains that Emily Kokal, Theresa Wayman, Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa call home and imbue so well on their second record. Understandable, too—each cut of Warpaint is like a siren song, even if their name would suggest something of a more traditional punk-band; a raucous, riotous, ruinous catalyst of cave-bars filled with combat boots, shaved cuts and alternative piercings. A thrashing, speedfreaking, amphetamine-induced explosive affair with strats and SG’s and V’s, jetting past pibsqueak signs of tone and gain on the big amps, beat-up drumkits savaged by their keepers, the deaf drummers, deaf guitarist, deaf—well everyone in that dark, dank hole in the wall should be a sourdine after an oxymoronic, classically proper punk gathering. But Warpaint too is paradoxical; the perception that their punk-sound would involve appropriations of downtrodden machismo and backlogged confidence bursting out of the inseams of a dreg’s pants, is antiquated. Joan Jett or Pat Benatar, Debbie Harry or even Siouxsie Sioux, they are not. There is no personality-cult surrounding their cast—each is equal in this warrior band of four Amazons, ash such their name is two equal parts: War—combat, conflict, battle, destruction, decimation, bloodbath, massacre—and Paint—water, oil, acrylic, pigmentation, visualization, depiction, cosmetics, aesthetics. A duality presents itself: art in the name of battle, accents in the name of armor, sculpture in the name of scalping; a ritual artistry not limited to any continent or tropic, adopted by the Zulu, the Celt, the Iroquois, the Maori, the Viking and the Mayan alike to craft combat into something tolerable; elevating war into art and struggle into image. The Paint carries a just as crucial and comparable sonic element to the War: it’s nested on The Fool, Warpaint’s mottled debut—largely a collection of half-songs—with a sonic that is smoky, jungled, hazy and well-executed on cuts like the eponymous cut of “Warpaint” and the tasteful “Undertow” (a rare instance of a Nirvana reference sitting in the middle of the Venn diagram between the thoroughly enjoyable, the overwhelmingly goth and the insanely karaoke prone).
When Warpaint find their lines, guitar, keyboard, bass, vocals so on, they tend to curve and jut across the canvas, at once elegant and terrible, beautiful but horrifying, enchanting but utterly fucking haunted. The tracks imitate an artistic ritual: a tableau to dissect terror, the grey, white and black clashing over Guernica, animals, objects and humans broken down to shapes fighting not only each other, but themselves as well, a canvas of darkness highlighted by single, monotone woman, a cut up horse and rider, a hollering paysan, falling from the urban cliff: all honed and hollering into the greyscale of conflict with the clarity of heart-dropping intensity. So too do the single lightning-bolt riffs erupt from the engine of Wayman’s Mustang and Kokal’s Jaguar, cutting across the psychedelic, hysteric fumes of yagé to amp the brain into a voltaic zeal, both their voices chanting with the melancholy of a Theban choir and striking amorphous abstraction into clear depiction—every guitar solo a lightning bolt collected from the acrylic, cloudy layers, layered over layers, coalescing and congealing canvas with ribbed texture. The formula recalls mid-Eighties Cure (with Porl Thompson moving his fingers around the knife blades on the neck of his Gibson), late-Eighties Sonic Youth (with more hooks and less drone) or early Cat Power (with her gift for murmuring everything one wants to scream). Some might consider their live-sound to speak to that barren, rocky horizon of Death Valley as Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal explains:
“Their chemistry is inexplicable and fascinating to behold. With Kokal and Wayman often singing on either side of a central Lindberg– who commands attention with her spaced-out sway– the live attack is engrossing. Together with drummer Stella Mozgawa, Warpaint speak a sultry, desert-rock language that no one else is privy to, but you can’t help but want to crack it nonetheless.”
But!: The Fool emerges from the jungle with barbarian brutalism, hacked from a heart of darkness and muddily put together as frame stories within frame stories; lyrics written by one, sung by another. Guitars backed by muted drums, snare hits and prowlng basslines. The sonic is muddled and hazed over in Kubrickian fashion, with melodies overpowering rhythms in kill-or-killed savagery. This is due to, in short, drummer trouble; Warpaint called in Frusciante understudy Josh Klinghoffer, who is no by means a poor drummer, but who was, ultimately, temporary relief and more tellingly, a guitarist. And while his predecessor Shannyn Sossamon could carry cuts, they both were only holding the kit together until Stella Mozgawa could thrash it behind the tom-toms. Thus, The Fool was caught in an awkward period of a transition from not-quite-yet Red Hot Klinghoffer (an extremely rock oriented drummer) to the experimental Mozgawa (a hip-hop oriented drummer who would probably rock the shit out of an MF DOOM or Danger Mouse record).
The short of it: the record was made by convenience rather than by luxury. It got the name out there and that was it. Wayman, Kokal and Lindberg do well enough to mask a write-in drummer not yet carved into the stone, but the absolute lack of memorable drum sections speaks to their comfort-levels. Either Mozgawa did not want to zoom away on her pads or gadgets, or Wayman, Kokal and Lindberg did not need her to. Understandable for a band that would rather have its day in the jungle rain, just to sell that gauche introduction—letting their debut tell of a band still stuck; to most ears The Fool plays lush and clouded, a wet run for a Zaba Gothica (Zaba itself a poppy Zolo effort from Oxfordshire) and finding little success, still wandering the tropics of Goiania with nothing but a first-gen iPod stacked in nothing but the Cure and Cat Power. Reactions were lukewarm at best: Andrzeh Lukowski made of it as an impersonal heap for Drowned in Sound; Lorrie Edmonds flicks them off her shoulder for Dusted, and scowls at what the open door let in; Prefix writer/user daba glowed across all the faults of the record as intended master strokes; meanwhile, Spin, AllMusic and Billboard all barely dribbled out a paragraph as they fiddled with their pencils, as they do and as to why no one fuckin’ reads Spin (unless coerced by research purposes). In a twist-but-so of fate, Dombal and Pitchfork read like the most pragmatic (the Rolling Stone of the internet must be, really, lest it lose the sweet juice of that ad-revenue): making of the album a simulacrum, ultimately astute, for their live show and adopting a wait-and-see policy. And that is what sticks like a dagger through the chest, the most terrible aspect of Warpaint’s debut: it feels like a tableau of potential crumbling under pressures. That potential is a value, and The Fool has, like its namesake, traded it for years, risked becoming a crone with no chance, no fair shot and no happy tidings, so the debut makes of moodiness, muddiness and chaos what it can and that is why it remains so polarizing even eight years on, as I sit here writing about the damn thing. As spooky as an berserking voodoo lady whose hacking exit through the vines was not a victorious pose, but awash with grasping desperation, a wont for open skies and free paths rather than the suffocating arms of the jungle.
It would take a second album to prove the devil’s advocate; but Ryan Dombal was no longer there to describe the tribal ceremony that is a Warpaint record—instead Ian Cohen came forth like a wasp in an indigenous congregation, ready to sting. The review buzzes through each moment of the record like each head at the pews, with its venomous syringe of an asshole primed to pump cc’s of corrosive opinion: Cohen decries the band’s rigor-mortifying approach to music: the over-reliance on bass, the post-rock padding of guitars, the disinvolvement with any juicy studio hardware, the lack of hooks, grooves, friction or interest, the derogatory adoption of Massive Attack and Portishead’s triphop principles, the folly of an album as a “grower,” the compartmentalized functions of Kokal, Wayman, Lindberg and Mozgawa, the incessant pacing between what is pop and what is not, the struggle for balance between the retro and the future, the lack of critical standards by which writers permitted the indulgence of such a record by such a band. The only thing to do after this review is to sit back and admire how much Cohen genuinely hated this LP, such that he vocalized in contrary to the chant like Melkor mucking Eru’s first grand theme. Forgetting every point of disagreement—it takes a moment—the mind refocuses upon refrains seared between the ears searching for the summit of this record’s powers; perhaps these crests are simply hilling, and where one sees the mountain, another sees the molehill; one sees the trial, another sees the trivial.
But not until 2013’s Warpaint did these Amazons stumble upon the dunes they pined for in their live shows; some say it swelters with Death Valley, as barren and lifeless as Cohen’s heart for this record. And the solemnness of the record may hawk the horizon, but from Wayman’s opening miscount, the shoegazing emotionality dips and crests along the Bedsheets of Maranhão, with freshwater pools made from the teary aftermath of the many hill-slide ego-deaths (“Keep It Healthy,” “Love Is to Die,” “Disco//very,” “Feeling Alright,” “CC”). The cool calming clarity of cuts like “Hi,” “Biggy,” “Teese” “Drive” and “Son” tucks betwixt crescendo dunes peaking, ponds like islands marooned in the sonic waves, sloping, rolling, cresting, breaking, falling, crashing ad infinitum; blanket synthesizers pockmarked with guitar blues. As majestic and entrancing an environment as construed reaching by the fingertip steams for great oceans of emotion. The drumwork is stark, the guitars gather together, collect the grains of a softly ambient rhythmic section that gives way to crushingly beautiful open beaches fruiting along a now solid wall of riffs, howling and whistling with more volume than Cat Power or PJ Harvey. Hell, most of those tracks stick the shoegaze dunes and the triphop ponds side-by-side, rather than waiting for one or the other to deliver a punch-counterpunch combo of hillcrest and basin. It’s such a remarkable thing to hear that Chase Woodruff’s piece for Slant Magazine describes the first five cuts off Warpaint as unqualified triumphs—true, in that the tracks are giddy with the amateurism that brought Exquisite Corpse and The Fool down to earth— and then remarks of that same duality:
“Warpaint’s complex, operatic highs, its experiments in minimalism and tranquility make for some awfully low lows, but there are worse things than a band that seems to be evolving in two directions at once.”
For the casual fan’s tastes, this is fine—so long as the band keeps tailing both directions—the only problem arises when only one direction is pursued. And true, the album begins to delve deeply into hypnagogic and ambient areas of disinterest, as if put together in trance rather than in conjuration. Warpaint trips for the ego-death, gives a word or two on it and then, disconcertingly, plunges right into another as if they never learned from the prior, they push from fight to fight to wet sentimentality with no real desire to stop. This is where the sheets truly meet the sea, where the comfort crashes into the ocean, the skyline swallowed whole by gaping Calypso-like leaps in melody and harmony, aural white spaces of the silent treatment failing to course with the same momentum these elemental ladies possessed but not minutes before. This is, by Cohen’s estimation, a travesty. And by mine, he has misestimated. One should see the experiment—the mad trek through styles, looking for substance and how Warpaint just find it often rather than not. However, record’s many criticisms and commendations fall on either side of pennies for thought: The Fool is derided for sameness, but what is sameness if not consistency? Warpaint is lambasted for languishing into many different areas, but what is spottiness if not exploration? What is depth if not narrow-mindedness? Music nerds will greatly disagree on how and when these nebulous terms apply. But Warpaint’s divisiveness now is going to pay dividends later when people start dissecting these records for full pieces. They’re not seminally attached to the period like Neil Young or Joan Baez or Bob Dylan records, but attached to technical proficiency and an undeniably 21st-century sense of style. In some technomantic cyberwitch world, this is music for emo-cabal, it’s heavy and plodding, playing with more sludge metal triphop than some bastard Black Sabbath/Danger Mouse record could imagine and more riot grrrl sex emotions than even Thunderpussy can handle.
They are a band of pissed-off, banshee-Mojave Carole Kings seeking to shiver cold the listener—not just simple women witchdoctors prowling the Brazilwood jungle and country, but unsparing powakas, chasing evil men from the dunes of Brazil to the branches of the Joshua Tree and then haunting them along the Little San Bernardino peaks—all killers, no filler. Even the slow tracks play like the desolate aftermath of a bloody Western. No survivors, just these four women in black riding their milk-white mares. It’s a great visual for an even greater record but if those slow-burn needed an album devoted to them, it should be found elsewhere (Loma’s debut, for starters). Warpaint thrived on all the heart-stopping moments that brought us to that frame and not just resting their laurels on that singular frame.
Unfortunate then, that such is exactly where Warpaint goes on Heads Up.
Part II (En Route!)