From 16 Horsepower through the last almost 15 years of Wovenhand, David Eugene Edwards hasn’t touched much that didn’t thrive on tension and looming darkness. The sound itself has changed, moved forward, stepped sideways, but the intensity has never lessened. Edwards’s voice has much to do with the tone of the music, falling somewhere between a black-hatted pastor and a warrior resonating from a cave. On Wovenhand’s latest album, Refractory Obdurate, these aspects of the sound remain, but they’re expressed through something heavier and, if not more manic, maybe a little broader.
“Good Shepherd” epitomizes the energy here, atmospheric and gothy, yet a bit of a post-punk rave-up. For those of us who have come to expect the imminence of the apocalypse from Edwards, the sound’s bright enough that it’s practically a praise song (though don’t expect this one to be coming to a contemporary service near you anytime soon). By the end of the song, the music serves as a perfect vehicle for the joy that Edwards vocalizes.
The music surprises throughout the album. Opener “Corsicana Clip” has a steady drive, a strong pulse from the percussion and a motivated acoustic guitar part as Edwards seeks “the hollow of his hand.” The latter part of the song shifts into an electric roar, the original song still present, but facing consumption in the volume and the increased atmospherics. Edwards’s echo-y words become less intelligible by the presence of something “high above” remains undissolved.
And so the album goes, a stark and potent faith drawn through and turned out in heavy sonics, sometimes brutal not so much in their music (there’s not, say death metal here) but in their weight. If “Masonic Youth” fittingly hints at Moore and Gordon, it never shies from its menace even as it seeks lyrically to escape darkness. “Salome” touches on classic metal while dealing with the headhunting “dancing girl”. It’s a bleak story that gets darker as the song develops before uncorking over its final minute.
Like most of Edwards’s discography, Refractory Obdurate isn’t an album for reprieves, even steeped in the gospel as it is. There’s no escaping an auditory assault in a world driven by bigness of religious concerns. If we took time to think otherwise, “Hiss” brings swift discipline, roiled by the meeting of judgment and repentance. It’s a semi-audible sermon, hard to hear in its loudness, but likely to make a negligent pilgrim faint.
The album at times, even in its processing of the transcendent, tugs on a vague claustrophobia. If Wovenhand provide the out with “Good Shepherd”, it stayed in the middle of the album, the second half of the disc chasing for an outlet that’s extant but not always visible. Despite the comparisons he sometimes receives, Edwards doesn’t offer a sermon. He’s not an exegete on the outside of the experience; he’s a sojourner in the midst of something simultaneously elusive and substantial, and it’s that challenging presence that drives the record.