[10 February 2014]
Hank3, the artist sometimes known as Hank Williams III, hops from one musical genre to another the way most of us switch TV channels. Country, country-rock, country-punk, hardcore, horror-punk, metal, doom metal—he’s explored them all during his 15-year recording career, and occasionally at the same time. The restless rocker just released his latest punk effort, A Fiendish Threat, on the same day as a new double album of straight country tunes. He played guitar and drums on both albums. He engineered, produced, mixed and mastered the songs himself. He released them on his own label. No one can accuse Hank3 of being lazy.
One can accuse him of making a bland record, though, and unfortunately, that’s what A Fiendish Threat turns out to be. Credited to a band simply called 3, the album takes a raw and rustic approach to punk. Hank3 bangs away on an acoustic guitar and howls his vocals through a distortion filter. Zach Shedd slaps the stand-up bass, forming a galloping rhythm section with Hank3’s drums. A few offbeat sonic accents, like banjo, steel guitar and fiddle, show up along the way. The players do a good job, but the songs don’t reward their efforts. This is a case of the whole being much less than the sum of its parts.
Some of Hank3’s artistic choices contribute to the problem. His vocals, for instance. There are moments—the song “Fight My Way” is an example—when burying Hank3’s voice in hiss and distortion adds a nice bit of texture to the song. Overall, though, the treatment succeeds only in robbing his singing of nuance. Hank3 has an expressive voice, both rough and twangy. This record turns it into a monochromatic buzz that maintains the same monotonous tone, track after track.
Another issue is that the songs on A Fiendish Threat run too long. Most clock in either near or beyond the 4-minute mark—practically “Free Bird” territory for punk rock. Album opener “Can I RIP U” gets things started with a few stark guitar chords, followed by the pounding rhythm section and Hank3’s vocals. If edited down to roughly two minutes, the song would be a powerful blast of country punk, the sonic equivalent of a steel-toed cowboy boot to the gut. But it stretches out to nearly four repetitive minutes, and by the end the listener starts to feel bored.
Making things worse is the fact that there’s just not enough musical variety here. The serrated acoustic-guitar sound that Hank3 uses hardly varies from song to song, and most of the tracks move at the same basic tempo. As the album unfolds, it becomes hard to distinguish one song from another. The moments that work best are when the band lets its freak flag fly, as on “Broke Jaw”, a weird track (that’s weird in a good way) in which the breakneck rhythm is joined by a languid, surfy guitar solo and an explosion of fiddle that sounds like it came straight from the Devil in a Charlie Daniels song. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Another highlight is “Breakin Free”, which enters a slowed-down groove near the end, accompanied by a menacing, echoey fiddle solo. I wish Hank3 had given himself over to these less-conventional moments instead of relying on the same punk tricks again and again.
Hank3 says that playing the songs from A Fiendish Threat makes him feel young again. In a way, I can see that. These are the kind of songs that can come to incendiary life when performed on stage. As recorded, though, they create a few sparks, but never catch fire.