Wovenhand - Refractory Obdurate

The Swans reunion is an unambiguously great thing: A band of grizzled veterans channeling all the forces of darkness and playing half-hour symphonies to the abyss, staring all their deepest impulses in the face and submitting to them entirely. A Swans show, these days, is a scorching, purifying, life-affirming experience, and a new Swans album isn’t much different. But even with all the power that the reconstituted Swans have at their fingertips, I’ve felt the slightest twinge of loss everytime I’ve heard their monolithic clang. That loss is this: At least for now, Angels Of Light are done. From the time Swans broke up to the time they got back together, frontman Michael Gira led Angels Of Light, a band that brought the enormity of that old Swans pound to old, ancestral American musics. Angels Of Light weren’t a folk band or a country band, and their noise was nearly as elemental as that of Swans. But even at their grandest, they still had a weird campfire-folk simplicity to their songs, and that was a powerful thing. My first prolonged exposure to Gira was an Angels Of Light show in a tiny Baltimore room, back when Devendra Banhart was both an opening act and an Angel Of Light, and I left that show with my knees shaking. Gira — barrel-chested, spotless white cowboy hat pulled low over his face — came closer than any singer I’ve ever heard to Johnny Cash at his most mythic, and he did it while pushing the music of our collective American memory into dark, strange places. That band was something. But listening to Refractory Obdurate, the new Wovenhand album, that twinge of loss is becoming more of a distant echo. We might not have the Angels Of Light right now, but we do have Swans. And now, we have Wovenhand too.

Actually, we’ve had Wovenhand for years; I’ve just been too shortsighted to realize it. Wovenhand started in 2001, as a side project of the muscular Denver alt-country band 16 Horsepower, and they’re now seven albums deep into a career that has outlasted 16 Horsepower’s. I’m looking forward to going back and exploring the six albums I missed, because Refractory Obdurate is a monster. The term “alt-country” appears on the first line of Wovenhand’s Wikipedia page, and it’s not entirely inaccurate; the band carries the weight of country and rockabilly history in many of their arrangements. Mostly, though, that word’s appearance makes a case for how useless and arbitrary genre distinctions can be, especially when the people making the music show no interest in adhering to any genre’s set of rules. I might’ve never given Refractory Obdurate its due if Converge frontman Jacob Bannon hadn’t released it on his Deathwish Inc. imprint, a label that’s made a name for cranking out adventurous and unhinged punk and hardcore and metal. And yet the label is a perfect home for the Wovenhand of Refractory Obdurate, who bring levels of darkness and mercilessness and grandeur that most metal bands could never hope to match.

Amidst whatever elements of alt-country you might hear on the album, you’ll also find ancestral folk-blues desolation, feverish basement-hardcore abandon, bilious sludge-metal power-fantasy enormity, evocative film-score majesty, pigfuck scrape, blurting postpunk grind, prog-rock sweep. There’s no twang in frontman David Eugene Edwards’s voice; instead, he’s got a grand and faraway carnival-barker wail that reminds me, just slightly, of one of his past tourmates, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. There’s some Gira in there, too, and some Birthday Party-era Nick Cave, and some late-Lungfish Daniel Higgs, and some recent-vintage Mark Lanegan. At a certain point, though, you stop mentally breaking the songs on this album down into their component parts, into possible genres or influences, and you just let them wash over you and fill you up.

The best example might be the “Salome,” one of the longer songs on the album. It starts out as an eerie minor-key goth churn with some heavy rumble on the toms. Guitarist Neil Keener, formerly of the great post-hardcore band Planes Mistaken For Stars, plays an Eastern-accented distorto-riff that could be country-folk, but it could just as easily be metal or, like, Dick Dale-style instrumental surf guitar. There’s a glassy keyboard in there, too, that sounds like Dead Can Dance. Edwards starts intoning grand, portentous noise about “the father” and “the dancing girl,” his voice a weathered boom so buried in the mix that you can’t necessarily tell exactly what he’s saying. Gradually, everything gets louder and more frenetic. Soon enough, Edwards is chanting ritualistically and then yelling, the guitars are getting more and more unhinged, the synths are in full windswept-drone mode. The song starts to fill up your vision, blacking out everything out. It doesn’t have much of a tune, and you might not remember how it goes when it’s over, but it’ll still leave you gasping by the time it draws itself to a close at the 5:20 mark. (Even the long songs here aren’t long; they pack these big vistas of feeling into something resembling standard song length.) But it doesn’t matter what happens to the melody because the feeling lingers, and anyway when the song ends there’s another dark journey to embark on.

It’s weird listening to Refractory Obdurate in the early-spring sunshine. This is midnight music, winter music, music for wrestling wolves and smearing hot blood across your chest. This is warrior-priest music, stalking-the-shadows music. It’s music that finds ways to sound like Joy Division and Neurosis at the same time, while also mocking the idea that you can describe a piece of music by naming other pieces of music. It is a spitting, roaring, fiery beast of an album, a remarkably gratifying listening experience that may leave you feeling more whole, more human when it’s over. Give yourself over to it.

Refractory Obdurate is out now on Deathwish Inc.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Damon Albarn’s clicking, whirring inward look Everyday Robots.
• Pixies’ argument-starting EP collection Indie Cindy.
• Wye Oak’s shimmering synth experiment Shriek.
• Frameworks’ intense, sincere post-hardcore debut Loom.
Arcadia, Chairlift leader Caroline Polachek’s hazy, introverted solo debut as Ramona Lisa.
• Fennesz’s conceptual Endless Summer follow-up Bécs.
• Ought’s spirited postpunk debut More Than Any Other Day.
• Dirty Projectors member Olga Bell’s Russian-language solo LP Krai.
• Fellow Dirty Projector Nat Baldwin’s solo LP In The Hollows.
• Floor’s reunion fuzzbomb Oblation.
• Ex Cult’s grimy garage punker Midnight Passenger.
• Black Mountain side project Pink Mountaintops’ weird L.A. coke-rock move Get Back.
• Former Unwound members Survival Knife’s debut Loose Power.
• Sean Lennon project the Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger’s mystic psych freakout Midnight Sun.
• Monster Ralley’s collage-based zone-out Sunflower.
• Lord Mantis’s filthy sludge attack Death Mask.
• William Tyler’s Lost Colony 12″.
• Jacques Greene’s Phantom Vibrate EP.
• Pony Bones’ PONY BONES II EP.

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Comments (19)
  1. “Pixies’ argument-starting EP collection Indie Cindy.”

    Indeed.

  2. well just off of “Hiss” alone I think this makes a fine album of the week. I totally would have missed this had it not been featured here so thank you for introducing me to this kick ass band

    I do have to say though my personal pick is that new Wye Oak. I’ve really enjoyed reading about Wasner’s difficulty living a post-Civilian music career and her overcoming a writer’s slump by divulging in different approaches to what seemed like a perfected formula. The absence of the guitar is something I miss but I’ve become grounded in my enjoyment of the synths. It gives Wasner’s vocals such a gentle background. It’s not as engaging in Civilian, but the fact that Wasner has intutition to follow what she feels like making rather than what she thinks she should be making is something I respect in an artist, especially since she makes it work. The same goes for the new Albarn. I honestly love it when artist change because they’re surroundings have changed. It shows growth and maturity.

    Other than those two I’d say my underdog picks of the week are Ex-Cult and Ought. Those two albums are just full of youthful ambition and spearheaded energy.

  3. Am listening to the Ought album now. Awesome stuff!

  4. I don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. It’s John Lennon’s freaking son, and it’s really solid bluesy psych-rock! What’s not to love?

  5. I have been listening to Wovenhand ever since their Ten Stones-Threshingfloor period, but I began on their first album, which is still their best in my opinion. Best, in the sense of being totally the most “Wovenhand” in all of their glory. This new album is a definite shift–though parts of Laughing Stalk allude to this direction–and I need to get a few listens in, because I think it will pay off in the end. David Eugene Edwards is in the line of great American musicians. However, unlike most on that list, he is widely unknown to most Americans. All of Europe and Eastern Bloc know his name and beg for him to come back every chance he can get.

    If you are smart, you will dig into DEE’s work. You won’t be disappointed.

  6. This should have gone to Ought.

  7. Ok I just discovered Wovenhand. Is this a well known band that I have just been oblivious to? Because I feel like I just found a gem that everyone knows about but I had no idea existed.

    This is very good.

    • I saw them play live about five years ago. Good show. The were (are?) inexplicably HUGE with the Christian rock crowd, so there was this fun dichotomy of this band of old guys playing this loud doomy music to the a real clean-cut bunch of kids.

      • How is it inexplicable? David Eugene Edwards is a devout Christian in the Calvinist vein so his lyrics resonate with a sub-culture of believers who are no looking for the touchy feely stuff that is typically passed off for faith-based music.

        If anything, he is inexplicably HUGE in Europe. They eat his music up.

        • Same with 16HP very popular. Their live DVD (which is the best live concert I’ve ever seen) was fittingly filmed over there. Here’s hoping he hits the east coast at some point touring this album as he’s worth the trek to see.

        • It wasn’t meant as a knock. Wovenhand just makes such gloomy, unfriendly music that it was kind of a surprise to see so many kids there who seemed to be more of the Pedro the Lion audience. Not the types who would be at an Angels of Light or Tool show, to name two of the reference points mentioned in the article.

          • I didn’t take it as one :) I think that there are some that eat it up because it is such a breathe of fresh air amongst the other options. There is some gloomy stuff in the Bible that nobody seems to like to write about.

    • I would not consider them well known, but many people, myself included, have been listening to them since day 1. If you were listening to Sufjan Stevens and Daneilson in the early 2000′s then you were exposed to Wovenhand.

  8. Wovenhand hasn’t put out a bad album yet. Nor for that matter did David while he did his 16 Horsepower stuff. If you liked this then going through both bands entire backlog is a must. If you liked the punch of this then Secret South should be particularly appealing.

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