Time hasn't always been on Witch Mountain's side. When the band formed in Portland, Ore., in 1997, its brand of traditional heavy metal was at its commercial and cultural nadir. After recording their debut album, ...Come the Mountain, in 2001, as day jobs and other real-life obligations took hold and the band faced a wall of critical indifference—and as nü-metal and Creed dominated rock radio—the band members decided to take a long break. When they reformed, it was with decidedly lowered expectations.
"From 2005 to 2008 we just played locally," says drummer Nate Carson. "We had a set of songs, but we didn't have a record deal or any real concrete aims. When somebody asked us to play a cool show and we wanted to do it, we'd do it."
But all those years of frustrated ambition started to turn around when Carson, who also runs a metal booking agency called Nanotear, hired Uta Plotkin as an intern in 2008. Plotkin, 31, is about a decade younger than the other members of Witch Mountain (Carson, guitarist Rob Wrong, and new bassist Neal Munson, who replaced Dave Hoopaugh earlier this year) but she shares a passion for the old-school heavy metal that has inspired the band: Black Sabbath and '70s Judas Priest, but also proto-metal bands like Mountain and less well-known but influential bands like Angel Witch and Pentagram.
It was, in fact, when Witch Mountain landed the opening spot on a Pentagram show in Portland that Plotkin really announced her presence to Carson and his bandmates. Carson knew she sang in the band Aranya, so he invited her to join his band onstage.
"For years and years, we had always been looking for somebody with that level of ability to sing with us," he says. "We had the Pentagram show coming up and thought, to make the show a little more special, we'll have Uta come do a guest vocal. It went really well. It felt so natural that first performance, so we immediately invited her to play with us. She learned our entire set and then played another show with us a month later, and it's been awesome ever since. ... Once Uta came around we were all getting to a point where we wanted to take it more seriously again anyway, and she gave us even more reason to excel and work hard and invest in the group."
Plotkin joined the band in the studio to record the comeback album South of Salem, released in 2011. Salem earned the band some attention, but it was the follow-up, Cauldron of the Wild, released in April, that pushed Witch Mountain to rave reviews and a recent feature in Spin. Cauldron is a notable step forward—Plotkin's singing and songwriting are more dynamic, and the band stretches out of the straight-up heavy doom on Salem into uncharted territory, like the ominous folk and drone passages on "Aurelia" and the bluesy swagger of "The Ballad of Lanky Rae."
"There was touring that happened in between, and it was our third studio session with her," Carson says of the difference. "And it was all lyrics and melody lines that she had written herself. The South of Salem stuff was pre-existing, so she did an excellent job of singing those songs, but there's a conviction you get from singing your own words. There's a lot of work and gelling that happened in between those two albums."
Carson says the quality of Plotkin's voice—full-throated, powerful, and reminiscent of Heart's Ann Wilson and Allanah Myles—is an antidote to nearly 30 years of extreme vocals.
"You could say its retro just because there's loud guitar and good singing," he says. "I think actually having a singer who can sing is retro, because nobody does that anymore."
Nobody in the band is willing to let this second chance at success get away. They recently recorded an EP for car-maker Scion's AV division, and have set out on their first high-profile (by independent metal standards, anyway) national tour, a five-week stretch with fellow trad-metal revivalists Castle, from San Francisco.
"We've spent the last couple of years reformatting our lives to be able to do touring like this, and to be able to make the band a priority," Carson says. "We all have flexible jobs where we can do this now. We just feel like there's so much momentum now, and there's so much more interest in the band, that we've prioritized it. There are sacrifices you have to make—none of us have as high-paying jobs as we could if that was our main focus, or benefits or security. But it's worth it to be able to pursue our dream."