White Hills have always been a high quality “it” band who, regardless of any hype or not, are a reliable go-to source for a mind-altering and rocking time. The band captures that elusive sense of cool that some bands and artists like Iggy Pop, Boris, Royal Trux, Janelle Monae or the Raveonettes have in spades, a commitment to their own vision regardless of what else is going on and all while looking fabulous. Dave W. and Ego Sensation have led the band to become simultaneously one of the best known and best-kept secrets in live rock, a group that opens a vortex every time they hit the stage.
Now the dark times we are living in have made the band flip the script in a fascinating way. Stop Mute Defeat is their coldest and most emotionally numb album, a post-punk/no wave/’80s synth/proto-industrial-stacked long, cold pan down the belly of the beast through a dilated camera eye. White Hills smartly grabbed Martin Bisi (Cinema Cinema, Sonic Youth, Brian Eno, Afrika Bambaataa) to mix this new monster. The beats sound like throbbing Mudd Club half-remembered party flashes and hit on a visceral and familiar level but still sound new and cutting edge again. Everything is new, and everything is old, but the frontier is still out there.
“A Trick of the Mind” feels like being lost amidst a sea of viral memes, none of which have more import than another, time wasting eternally in a new data pile to dwarf the ghost of Fresh Kills Landfill. The throbbing track has a sort of 808 meets New Order/Kraftwerk feel in places — very chill but also disconcerting. It is like drifting through crowds, zooming through dystopia in a cab, or slowly losing feeling in your limbs as you overdose. All of these metaphors are perhaps overwrought, but when the mantra of “No one is sane” comes in near the end, the track feels like it sums up our modern bubble micro- and macro-worlds perfectly.
This is a smart album but never trips on its references. Cabaret Voltaire, William S. Burroughs, Primal Scream are all name-dropped in the press release, and while those shoes fit, the band are not just biting off more than they can chew aping past greats. The sense of experimentation, dark sensuality and wonder in those artists work is alive and well here in new veins. Like Aborym’s very different Shifting.negative, the record has sections that feel deceptively simple until you process that the whole texture you are feeling is a myriad of anti-oppression messages set to well-curated minimalism. Think Suicide by way of modern technology’s options, but influenced by Dave W.’s growing interest in meditation and, recently, a series of sculpturally-based, hallucinatory abstract paintings in which the viewer is sucked into infinite space. That sense of trying to find any semblance of “self” is an essential component I feel every time I listen to this beautiful, cold baby.
“Attack Mode” still has some of the band’s psychedelic glory over a loop that could be dirgy Ministry if it were more metallic and less hot-flash-in-the-middle-of-Times-Square. The song deals with objectification and freedom of speech, among other topics of the times, set to a blue flame of relentless give-and-take.
The record goes into some unflinching places but never becomes tiring to listen to, perhaps as a deft result of both Bisi’s skillfully sexy (but at times barren) mix and the band’s poetic approach to the whole endeavor. It is “If…1…2” that crystallizes the whole thing in a siren wail of voices, whirs, trance-inducing oscillation and heartbeat-mocking animus. It’s an astounding moment for the band, but far from the only one on this record.
It takes a lot of skill or guts to attempt to pull of stylistic switches this abrupt. Iggy’s Préliminaires (loved by some and disliked as vain by others) or Codeseven’s criminally under loved Dancing Echoes / Dead Sounds come to mind on the plus side of risk-taking, whereas Suicide Silence’s recent self-titled debacle or the awful (if lucrative) mish-mash mess that is the music of Migos are examples of maybe trusting yourself too much. I still wish more bands would try, though.
Some sections of this album feel like three cocktails into the night, whispering into the ear the War Operation Plan Response program from the 80’s movie War Games — a high-risk but hot-and-heavy date with destiny and the dissociation of risk.
This new record from White Hills also feels like what Kanye needs as a time out come-down after his ridiculous pro-Trump rants, a groove-heavy step back from the false lure of capitalist co-option in the post Kendall Jenner/Pepsi advert America that we all need if we are going to survive this Mother of All Bombing fake Presidents. Penultimate track “Entertainer” sort of serves as a great reminder of the soul draining blizzard that is consumer culture. It reminds me of when Henry Rollins sang in the classic bruiser “Icon” that “It doesn’t matter what you say / ‘Cause they always find some meaning in it anyway.” The meaning of this album is multi-faceted but quite clear, and it is past time humanity turns back from the cliff that we have arguably already raced off of.
This is an album that reminds us of the healing power of turning off the white noise, but you will not want to stop listening to these songs themselves.