~reviewed by Matthew Heilman
Sixteen Horsepower is precisely the kind of band that up until recently, I thought could only exist in the most idealistic regions of my mind. The idea of fusing raw, classic Post Punk and Gothic elements with authentic Country, Bluegrass, or Western music would seem preposterous to some, but to me, I thought it would have made perfect sense. Both Goth and proper Country music explore misery, loss, pain, and angst to some extent, only with a slightly different mode of musical expression. The best songwriters of both genres inquire further into those looming philosophical questions concerning life, death, religion, and the universe itself. It’s all extremely relative in theme. What I had only fantasized about I soon discovered was a reality, and Sixteen Horsepower are the exact embodiment of what I had imagined and hoped for. They have released several critically acclaimed albums over the years, each demonstrating a noticeable maturity and development in the band’s sound and approach. But the gloom and twang and above all the authenticity has remained unscathed and I absolutely adore every album I have heard from them.
The earlier material presents the most direct appeal to traditional old school Goth fans. Some readers may have already recognized the ‘western’ themes or imagery in bands like the Fields Of The Nephilim, Theatre Of Hate, Adam & The Ants, Southern Death Cult, the Swans, Nick Cave’s work with the Bad Seeds as well as The Birthday Party, and of course The Gun Club (a band which my lame ass only recently discovered!). Sixteen Horsepower draws from the same decrepit, weedy well of sour American Gothic and paranoid religious fervor, and listeners will find the same sense of tension and anxiety on their self-titled debut EP and the extraordinary follow ups Sackcloth & Ashes and Low Estate. Olden, the band’s latest release, is a collection of demos, outtakes, and live tracks from this period and prior, and it is a fantastic introduction to this truly monumental band.
The material is culled from three different sources, with additional interview bits interspersed to serve as interludes. As the press release explains, “the purpose of Olden is to illustrate how over a couple of years Sixteen Horsepower found their voice and refined it. Think of [this compilation] as a road map to show how a great band became even greater.” On the earliest material presented here, the initial intensity and uniqueness of the band is clearly perceivable and the listener’s reaction is immediate. Sixteen Horsepower’s sound is direct, pure, and as complex and intentionally convoluted as the lyrical themes might be, the listener is instantaneously transported and understands exactly what they are hearing. David Eugene Edwards’ panic stricken sermons are backed by equally ominous and evocative music. Nearly every note played is bursting with anxiety, even the slowest and most doom laden dirges twitch with pent up disquietude, until the moment when it all violently unravels, bursting ablaze across propulsive, punchy gallops or malevolent, frenzied waltzes. The arsenals of instruments themselves are purely organic. Serpentine slide guitars bend and cut through the atmosphere, occasionally shaded by a manic accordion passage, the hollow clanking of a banjo or what sounds like the shrill eerie cries of the Devil’s fiddle. Don’t let this fool you. This is not your grandma’s country (then again, your grandma’s country might be worth investigating). These instruments and this voice fuse together to create what might be better described as a phenomenon that is nearly supernatural in its capacity to paralyze, influence, and alter the listener’s emotions.
For fans of Goth and more common styles of dark music, at times, the guitar work channels the nocturnal psychedelic blues of The Doors, while the tight, crisp, dynamic rhythms have a hypnotic Joy Division quality to them (An ingenious cover of “Day Of The Lords” appears on the band’s live release “Hoarse,” by the way). Vocally, Edwards resembles very early Gene Loves Jezebel (we’re talking 1983 “Promise” era GLJ) albeit with a greater twang and inexplicable, almost omnipotent sense of command.
Admittedly, the earliest material from the Night Owl Sessions does suffer from a bit of vocal monotony on Edwards’ part, as he seems less animated and emphatic than he was to become. However, if you haven’t heard the band before, you more than likely will not notice any reservation what so ever. Like I was the first time, you will be held in rapt attention. As the album unfolds, you can hear his near-messianic dominion develop into the startling and unforeseen climaxes, the pitch rising to a howl and to the laconic screams he is now known for. The Night Owl material beautifully introduces the listener to the general sound of the band, and the smoldering Biblical imagery that has become their trademarks. The song titles alone succeed in conjuring the necessary images to mind. With titles like “Scrawled In Sap” you can’t help but be stirred to feverish reveries.
The second batch of songs presents the band with a sharper, clearer production, fostering the dreamier echoes of “South Pennsylvania Waltz,” “Shametown” and it’s roguish mania and the unforgettable passionate claustrophobia of “Strong Man.” The live material expectantly reveals the band in their most uninhibited form, and the album concludes with selections that show a range of the band’s strengths, culminating with the mesmerizing gloom of “Low Estate” and the spectral waltz of “Pure Clob Road,” until the final three breakneck tracks flash forward like a bolt of misdirected lightning, leaving a trail of scorched earth and hell-fire in their wake.
Olden was the very first Sixteen Horsepower release I heard, and it immediately bore me over. It has its merits in that it compiles some of the band’s best early material on one disc, and case in point, it can make a fan out of you immediately. Upon further investigation and once I acquired the early CDs, I definitely prefer the versions that wound up on the original CDs. However, to hear these songs in their primitive and more volatile stages will be of great interest to longtime fans. The material on here is rare and diverse enough to be of interest to completists for sure. At this point, the early releases might be more difficult to obtain than they were a year or so ago, so therein lies another reason why Olden is an important addition to the band’s discography.
Sixteen Horsepower is one of the most refreshing, rewarding, and genuinely exciting musical discoveries that a dark music fan could make. If you have not yet been initiated, you must not delay. You won’t regret it. Your perception of music itself will more than likely be altered.
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