Will Heavenly Flight or Angry Spatters Triumph?
Combining stoner steadiness with spacious soaring, this compresses vocals to a growl. This enigmatic trio expands guitar effects and percussive clatter. Not much of a message can be discerned from the songs themselves, but they frame, according to their press statement, an assault on our status quo.
Ego Sensation, bassist, co-synthesist, and co-vocalist, explains: “We can barely pay our rent each month but we are willing to pull out our credit cards and go into debt each time a new iPhone promises a better connection. The joke is on us. Our greater connectivity has caused us to disconnect from our humanity. We have been sold the religion of consumerism to feed the corporate machine. We have been tricked into believing that wanting our tax dollars to pay for our own health care is treacherous to the ideals of a democratic society. Hp-1 is symbolic of the simplification of complex ideas to keep the masses from questioning the system.”
How does a largely instrumental, bracingly cranky record convey such a manifesto? The title track, closing the album, grumbles about something political, but lacking (in my advance copy) liner notes or much else to go on about this band from their label’s website, its convictions must be accepted as one listens rather than reads, relying on sounds rather than words. Complex ideas in these compositions appear, but they are ground down by repetition, extension, and distortion. This processing renders them more accessible, even catchy, but it also reifies their studio manufacture, their stamp, and their strains.
As with their self-titled debut (which followed limited-release vinyl singles and EPs), Hp-1 fits into the Boris and Acid Mothers Temple school of Japanese psychedelic, free-form, post-rock where it meets Krautrock, Hawkwind, and stoner-rock revivalists. These musicians aim at an open-ended, experimental approach which lightens the guitar and frees the rhythm section from sludge, if not rattle and hum. White Hills uses voices sparingly, as do their somewhat calmer peers Kinski, for example, to accentuate vocals as an added layer rather than as the dominant sound in their stratified arrangements.
Dave W., also a singer and synthesist, prefers a propulsive guitar for the opener, “The Condition of Nothing”. This is lighter than the bands Sleep or High on Fire in its vocals, but it channels their spite. “Movement” and the penultimate track “Monument” share a gritty, industrial, shaky ambiance, closer to the post-Sleep duo Om. This pair stand as very visual songs, landscapes of desolation that end in spatters and pulses, tribal percussion circling around a Mad Max post-apocalyptic expanse.
Drums by Lee Hinshaw (or Oneida’s Kid Millions or Antronhy on certain tracks) keep restless as often as they propel tunes. “No Other Way” methodically progresses, beneath hissing keyboards (Shazzula Nebula adds these on seven songs) which open up into space-rock recalling Farflung’s astral voyages. “Paradise” follows with a motorized guitar riff, an appealing Krautrock progression over more hiss. As its title indicates, “Upon Arrival” sails into space-rock again, an uptempo song closer to standard hard rock. As on their self-titled debut, I found this reversion to such a trope a slight letdown. Lean and solid, certainly, but White Hills shines when they leave behind these familiar chords for darker skies.
The latter stage of the album, as on many after mid-point, enters contemplative realms. It stretches out into astral patterns, elongated and attenuated, but their lack of dynamism leaves the listener impatient after the calm shift in this section wears off and the energy dissipates. White Hills structures these songs well, and none falter, yet the livelier, edgier tracks imprint themselves deeper in the imagination.
Their collaborators and colleagues Oneida share with White Hills a love for a hard rock stripped of its bombast. Like Oneida, their heavier, dirtier, earthier influences contend with airier, almost alpine atmospheres. The closing title track represents this dichotomy. Its classic-rock attack directs the listener to its beat, but its subversive shards of vocals are buried under a massive guitar-bass riff and a clean drum pattern.
They can’t figure out whether heavenly flight or angry spatters will triumph. While this title track, as with a few earlier ones on this album, ends exhausted rather than victorious, it earns respect and commands attention. The band reminds us that its message is “you don’t have to be a drone”. Expressed by often droning music, Hp-1‘s liberating message entangles itself in its own melodic medium, half-freed into stars, half-forged by iron. This cryptic core trio, however shifting in its lineups as well as its genres, delivers a solid, satisfying second album.