, February 2nd, 2010 09:55
Twenty-first Century space rock juggernauts White Hills' first blip on the radar, outside of their native New York, probably came in 2005 when Julian Cope, in his guise of tastemaker to the tuned in and turned on, started bigging them up on his rather marvellous Head Heritage website, and then issued their debut mini-album, They've Got Blood Like We've Got Blood, as a limited edition of one hundred CD-R's on his own label, the charmingly named Fuck Off and Di (yes, the people's princess does appear on the logo). White Hills played their first UK show the following year, opening for the Arch-Drude at London's Koko, and their glam-tinged fusion of Stooges, Hawkwind and Can has seen them joining the likes of Comets on Fire and Sunburned Hand of the Man in moving, thanks to Cope's initial patronage, from beyond the pale weird beard obscurity to, if not quite household name status, then certainly the standing of Heavy Cult Figures of some repute. And if Comets and Sunburned now enjoy notoriety far beyond Cope's circle of heads, black sheep and assorted fellow travellers, then White Hills' new album sees them ready to make that same advance themselves, possibly even catapulting them directly to the forefront of the contemporary psych-rock scene.
White Hills may well be the band's fourth album, though it's hard to say, their discography naturally being a labyrinth of rumoured and rare releases on tiny labels, collaborations and split singles, cryptic re-packagings, CDs that come encased in hand-carved wooden boxes and limited editions that barely stretch into double figures. What is certain is that the band regards it as a new beginning, a step up to the next level and a creative rebirth, with some justification. Their first full recording for Thrill Jockey, it should be their most widely available release yet, and sees founder members Dave W (vocals, guitar) and the divine Ms Ego Sensation (bass) joined by Oneida drummer Kid Millions, who left everyone who caught that band's awesome UK dates last year open-mouthed at his stamina and precision behind the kit.
Kid's presence is felt all over this album, recorded in just three days last summer at the Ocropolis, Oneida's Williamsburg studio. On their website, Dave W has spoken of a new intimacy to the music, a greater toughness and brutality coupled with a more emotional, open and free flowing style of playing, which is certainly facilitated by working with such a top-class drummer. It's evident in opener 'Dead,' as orchestral feedback erupts into a churning, hammering riff that doesn't let up for the next seven minutes. What's perhaps most shocking about this track though is the aggressive, caustic sneer of Dave's vocals, a voice we're used to hearing buried beneath layers of echo and reverb. "The light that burns my eyes- I'm empty inside" he rages, like the poor sap at the conclusion of Roger Corman's classic b-movie shocker, The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, overwhelmed by the endless waves of uncensored reality crashing down upon him. On 'Counting Sevens,' Kid Million's many-tentacled drum patterns anchor a shifting sea of feedback and wah guitar clusters, an ominous Negative Zone of anxious terrors unleashed and circling predatory in the void. Phased asteroids of sound sweep perilously from speaker to speaker, until the track crashes dramatically into the next number, the bruisingly heavy 'Three Quarters.' This is White Hills at their most bleak and nihilistic, with Dave coldly chanting "We don't care, she don't care, they don't care, no-one cares," over the band's patented Stoogewind riffing, exploding midway through into a raw Ron Asheton style solo. Many bands of course attempt this type of music, but few pull it off with the power and freshness achieved here. There's no stodge, no drag- this shit is lean and dangerous.
The album's centrepiece, however, is the thirteen-minute 'Let The Right One In.' It opens with the sound of tolling bells, but initially at least we're closer to pastoral Floyd than to Sabbath doom, with barking dogs and ambient chatter in the background evoking a lazy summer afternoon on the village green. Hazily bucolic, gentle weaves of sound lull the listener into feeling they're floating down the Cam in a punt with a head full of benign Owsley acid, carried lazily downstream by the hypnotic bassline, pulsing guitars and touches of bubbling synth. Gradually though the minor key repetition introduces a nagging worry of something sinister and awful just around the next bend, submerged anxieties that you can't quite let go, threatening to surface at any moment should you risk closing your eyes. And then, after eight and a half minutes you suddenly realise that you must have nodded off; it's grown cold and dark and the wind is picking up. And then, the thunder breaks, AND THE SKY IS FULL OF WHIRLING SCREAMING THINGS WITH MILLIONS OF EYES...
After that, the gnarly riffing of 'We Will Rise' remains steadily in the emotional midrange, while the more experimental, strung-out textures of 'Glacial' recall the stoned reveries of last year's A Little Bliss Forever LP. The album concludes with its second epic, the majestic 'Polvere Di Stelle' in which the notion of Loop jamming on Rotary Connection's 'Black Gold of the Sun' seems like a wonderful possibility, Kid Millions up there like a space-rock Keith Moon throughout the track's twelve-and-a-half minute duration. A fuzz-drenched behemoth swaying dangerously on a loose, jazz-informed chassis, the song proves that there are still new avenues to explore within a subgenre that is, by nature, often repetitive, formulaic and conservative. White Hills have shaken up the space-rock box, and shown that the patterns you can make therein are as infinite as the stars.