Like the youngest child born after three older siblings — one cantankerous and achingly hip, one popular and overachieving, and one dumb-but-fun — Neil Michael Hagerty’s Howling Hex don’t always seem like they know which legacy they want to live up to.
At times, like on their 2005 debut All-Night Fox, the Hex have chosen the path of Hagerty’s first band, Pussy Galore, making a riotous, trashy din with snotty indifference and little care for exhibiting any musicianship. Occasionally they’ve followed in the footsteps of Hagerty’s most famous project, Royal Trux, by making messy, strangely raunchy rock music. And then there have been times when they’ve pilfered elements of Hagerty’s other project, the pseudo-supergroup Weird War, whose scuzzy, pounding, self-titled debut album (Hagerty left the group before their second) was a ravenous dedication to soulful garage rock.
The truth is that the band have shuffled between all three stalls throughout the Howling Hex catalogue. And yet, for the first time in their six album history, none of Hagerty’s previous work is apparent this time around. Earth Junk is more polished that anything Pussy Galore put out, less sexy than Weird War and the excessive, heavy rock of Royal Trux has completely disappeared from view. In fact, Earth Junk bears little in common with anything Howling Hex themselves have put out previously.
Circular guitar riffs have always been something of a Hagerty trademark and “Annie Get Redzy” is certainly loopy in both senses of the word, but only on instrumental “Sundays Are Ruined Again” does Hagerty truly offer anything like the weird, catchy repetitive riffs and rhythms of You Can’t Beat Tomorrow. No, unlike its predecessors, the spine of Earth Junk comes not from mangled, indistinct guitars but from a circus organ.
“Big Chief Big Wheel” is a blurry fairground polka that is rescued from collapsing beneath the regular Hagerty guitar distortion by a glorious choir chorus. Always a stylistic nomad, Hagerty has never been one to stay around in a single place for too long, but never has he been so fidgety on a single album and, indeed, on single songs.
“Faithful Sister” marks a first for the band and, indeed, for Hagerty: a very tender song voiced, quite beautifully, by Eleanor Whitmore. It’s under two minutes long, but a remarkable centre-piece for the album, with Hagerty, for once, almost completely hushing up the guitar and organ to allow the focus entirely on Whitmore’s gorgeous voice.
In fact, Whitmore is given almost equal billing to Hagerty throughout, dropping back in to provide vocals on the frazzled and hypnotic “Contraband & Betrayal”, where her voice is masked almost entirely by waltzing keyboards and warped guitar, and on “No Good Reason”, where she duets with Hagerty over yet more organ.
Earth Junk veers off into yet another direction towards its conclusion with the meandering and downright creepy “Coffin Up Cash”. Hagerty’s spoken lyrics are unintelligible beneath some unidentified samples, whistles and wild howls. At over six-minutes, it’s the album’s longest track by some distance, but this is no rambling boogie in the same vein of the seven-minute jams that we heard on Nightclub Version of the Eternal. It’s scary, bleak, and hostile.
And just when you think you’ve got a read on Earth Junk, Hagerty rounds the album off with “O Why, Sports Coat?”, a jaunty solo acoustic number. But it’s this restlessness that is turning out to be Howling Hex’s niche. Rather than strive for the idiocy of Pussy Galore, the grunt of Royal Trux or the swagger of Weird War, Hagerty is now content to occupy an entirely different ground.
This alone ought to be enough to pique interest from followers of Hagerty’s career but despite, or perhaps because of, this there’s little on Earth Junk that will draw interest from new fans. But fans of Pussy Galore, Royal Trux, and Weird War will likely be pleasantly surprised by what happens when Neil Michael Hagerty piles more invention onto Howling Hex’s appealing weirdness.