Post Mortem: The Legacy Of Bark Psychosis’ Hex At 25
The first revolutionary shot fired from the ’90s rock underground in the UK was explosive enough to dispatch a home stereo. The story goes that when Graham Sutton, guitarist/vocalist for Bark Psychosis, first played for Vinita Joshi (then co-owner of Cheree Records) a tape of the two songs that would be his band’s first official single, it was a memorable unveiling. As writer Jack Chuter recounts in his book Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock, the two were listening to “All Different Things” and “By Blow” in Joshi’s London apartment, and, “As if Sutton had yet to fully grasp the dynamic volatility of his own music…he turned up the volume on Joshi’s speakers until they blew up.”
The decade had just begun and Sutton was 18 years old, as was his close friend and Bark Psychosis co-founder and bassist, John Ling. Young as they were, by that point they had been playing music together for several years, had left school to dedicate themselves to the band, and for their first release had recorded a grinding track called “Clawhammer” for a three-way split with Spacemen 3 and shoegazers Fury Things. Regret soon set in. They disowned their aggro-noise origins, and “All Different Things” b/w “By Blow” was their do-over. It was a remarkable reset.
Change was constant for Bark Psychosis. Leaning on the volume knob may have technically been what wrecked Joshi’s speakers, but the episode illustrates the unstable temperament of both the band itself and the body of work that they would gradually build over the next four years. That growth would culminate with Hex, their debut full length, the release of which in February 14, 1994 — 25 years ago today — was followed a few months later by the group’s demise. Instead of setting them on the road to bigger things, the path to Bark Psychosis’ first album proved to be their unravelling.
Sutton and Ling had been jamming since their school days in Walthamstow, London, but Bark Psychosis really found its bearings when drummer Mark Simnett entered the picture. Roughly a decade older than his new bandmates, his record collection unabashedly held its share of prog rock and Pink Floyd LPs. Through his job as a community worker, he was also able to score a practice spot in the basement of a church named St. John’s in the Stratford neighborhood, and they would eventually have opportunities to write and record music upstairs in the lofty main room. Simnett, then, was responsible for introducing space and ambience to Bark Psychosis in two key ways.
Dedicated to their cause, Ling and Sutton lived in a squat together in Leyton not far north of their crypt rehearsal space. They had ambitions, but success was measured less by fulfilling escapist rock ‘n’ roll dreams and more in translating their stark, urban East London surroundings into expression. Idealists who had previously bonded in shared fire for causes like nuclear disarmament, they pursued music with similar ardor and belief. Bark Psychosis’ songwriting process was intuitive and natural, but also impassioned and painstaking.
Perfectionism wasn’t the only factor to blame for the trickling pace of their recorded output. Two singles, “All Different Things” b/w “By Blow” and “Nothing Feels” b/w “I Know,” were released by Cheree in 1990. Difficulties between band and label came up soon thereafter, with the end result being that Bark Psychosis didn’t release any material for a year, when they signed with 3rd Stone Records and put out the three-track Manman EP. Yet they were hardly inactive in that interim. “There’s almost certainly a missing album, in some respects,” Sutton explains in Jeanette Leech’s book Fearless: The Making Of Post-Rock. “It would have been a document of where we were at the time…. It was a lot more band-like back then, but it was just changing so quickly.”
Unlike indie contemporaries such as Blur or Ride, who made conscious and consistent alterations to their sound with each successive album, the evolution of Bark Psychosis was practically song-by-song. If their trajectory had a precedent it was that of their heroes Talk Talk, who had pushed further into abstraction with each LP. The “Nothing Feels” single had been cold and dreamy enough to catch some of the Cocteau Twins’ crowd, but the Manman EP scraped the hard techno-futurism of the title track right up against the slow-release bliss of “Blood Rush” and progressive noise peaking of “Tooled Up.” The development from the early singles to the Manman EP can also be partly attributed to the band taking on keyboardist Daniel Gish, who had been playing with their nearby peers, Disco Inferno.
Bark Psychosis’ next release came in September of 1992, nearly another year later. “Scum” was a 12″ single that clocked in at 21 minutes long. Along its many lulls and swells, it pulled in elements of Miles Davis, Talk Talk, early-’70s Floyd, and other experimenters, while Sutton’s few lyrics confronted the utopian platitudes of the rising rave and electronic scenes (“Don’t tell me that we’re all free/ Can’t escape what you can’t see”), which they were personally dabbling in and otherwise taking positive inspiration from. “Scum” solidified their outsider status, moving the bar so far to the left that they fell off the radar of those who measured musical value in terms of chart potential.
The band did have allies in the British music press. There was Simon Reynolds, of course, who had been writing up Bark Psychosis and their friends in Disco Inferno for a while by that point, and would go on to build his concept of post-rock around those two and others like-but-unlike them. But he was not their only admirer in the media. It is a bit of an overstatement to claim that they were otherwise totally ignored when Hex was finally rolled out in early ’94 after a protracted recording period that lasted from March to November of the previous year. Fair to say, however, that the strong impression of “Scum” still trailed them up to the album’s release.
When “A Street Scene,” Hex’s first and only single, was released into the typically slow post-Christmas marketplace, the UK music weeklies did take notice. Simon Williams, reviewing the singles that week of January 15 for the NME, leaned on a tongue-in-cheek tone (“hardly Dannii Minogue in excelsis“), but also offered the not-unkind “Punk Floyd, in a nutshell.” Handling the same section for that week’s Melody Maker, Peter Paphides wrote of “A Street Scene” that, “Bark Psychosis purists will be relieved to know that there’s still nothing as straightforward as a lyric or a two-part harmony. However, what you do get is a beautifully disembodied guitar amble bolstered in the lead-up to — wait for it! — a chorus by some agreeable Miles Davis-style parping.” Apparently he couldn’t hear Sutton’s vocals on the track.
“A Street Scene” is not what most would consider a sure smash, but it was, chorus and all, the closest thing to a traditional single that Hex had to offer. Disembodied from the album, though, “A Street Scene” feels somehow incomplete. The low foreboding buzz of tremolo that introduces the song has more force when it pushes directly off the distant dissolution of “The Loom,” Hex’s patiently unfolding piano-led opener. Everything about Hex works so well because of the way all the pieces work together. It lodges itself into memory not with earworm hooks but by way of the dynamic leaps it makes and the startling scope of its foresight.
Bark Psychosis poured everything they had into Hex, and it drained them. Sutton had left the Leyton squat and moved down to Brighton by the time they started working on it in early 1993. Recording took place in Sutton’s new apartment, studios in both London and the town of Bath, and, once again, at St. John’s church. Their first big statement finally in sight, Bark Psychosis went for broke. They brought in the Duke Quartet (who count Morrissey’s Viva Hate and Blur’s The Great Escape among their credits) to do strings, and a cast of other players to add other elements like vibraphone, flute, trumpet, djembe and triangle. Sutton obsessed over every detail — it’s easy to hear how Hex’s big picture is determined by the minutiae — and his shifting moods throughout the process had an effect not just on the music but on those around him.
The band took a break at the end of 1993 after finishing Hex. Sutton recalls that when they reconvened to start practicing for a small promotional tour, Ling showed up but didn’t play. When he left the room, he left Bark Psychosis for good. Gish had actually been the first to go, toward the end of the Hex recording sessions. Sutton and Simnett carried on for a few more months and in the spring of 1994 managed to put out one more EP — Blue, with a slip of nocturnal techno (“Blue”) on one side and slab of metal machine music (“Hex”) on the other — before skidding to a halt.
That fatal timing lingers over the life of Hex. Yes, they had been around for over four years by that point, but a first album is still a significant milestone, and Hex wasn’t as roundly ignored as lore has it. The same two weeklies that weren’t quite sure what to make of “A Street Scene” were both unequivocal in their praise for the album. It was the lead album review in the February 12 issue of Melody Maker, which spoke of Hex in effusive, almost poetic terms, with reviewer Sharon O’Connell calling it “unquestionably divine” and crediting the band with having “cast one beautifully open-ended spell.”
NME slept on the record’s Valentine’s Day release date, but made up for it in their February 19 issue with an 8/10-rating review by the same Simon Williams who jested about “A Street Scene” a month prior. “What a thoroughly marvelous record,” came his conclusion. Bark Psychosis weren’t getting magazine covers or major features, but some people in some of the right places were paying attention and liking what they heard. Hex had been signed up by a subsidiary of Virgin Records called Circa, which also boasted Massive Attack among the artists on its roster. (The US release was licensed to the Virgin-tied Caroline Records but didn’t make many waves.) Little breaks like that may have been coming too slowly, but it begs the question how much further they could have pushed the avant-garde into the waters of the mainstream had they been able to stave off the breakup.
Lingering over the afterlife of Hex is the matter of whether it’s possible to interpret the legacy of the album and all of Bark Psychosis’ original catalog (Sutton put together a second Bark Psychosis album, ///Codename: Dustsucker, which came out in 2004) outside of the post-rock framework now so tightly assembled around it. Reynolds had for a while been collecting evidence for this new scene before Hex came out, but his review of the album in the March 1994 issue of Mojo magazine functioned as a dress rehearsal for his formal unveiling of post-rock in The Wire a few months later. Bark Psychosis “could be called ‘art rock’,” he allowed in that latter article. “Art rock” would likely have been the tag had Hex come out a year or two earlier, but the link to post-rock would have been made eventually. That Hex in its day was one of the first records to be identified as part of this new genre was, again, a matter of timing.
Distance from that era now makes it easy to notice similarities between Hex and other groups that were pulled into the post-rock conversation. The limber vibraphone and dub-inflected bass of “Big Shot” bring Tortoise immediately to mind. Sutton’s half-throated hush, especially, in the context of songs like these, echoes the quieter exhalations of June of 44 guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mueller. The glistening guitar patterns in “Absent Friend” trace a blueprint for the widescreen emotional moments of Explosions In The Sky and their kind. One spin of Hex is enough to catch traces of many post-rock bands from both Bark Psychosis’ own time and after, but it is impossible to know (without asking the musicians themselves) which are instances of influence and which are just two artists arriving at similar conclusions from different origins. What gave the idea of post-rock its allure was not so much the charisma of a tied-together scene, but the notion that a novel energy was in the air.
Relinquishing the control of connection and explanation before coming to Hex allows it to fully breathe. Those above-mentioned resemblances only go so far, and don’t tell half the story that the album can tell on its own. That goes for Side B in particular; the trio of “Fingerspit,” “Eyes & Smiles,” and “Pendulum Man,” all crossing the eight-minute mark and defying any convention that gets in their way. “Reach inside, it’s upside down/ I can’t find anyway out/ So throw away your promises/ Speak in tongues, can’t find my head,” Sutton releases in a rare outburst on the dark clanging “Fingerspit,” the need for a new language overtaking him.
Leech quotes Sutton as saying around the time of Hex’s release that “The album is about the power that people and places have over you… [h]ow they keep drawing you back even though you know they’re destructive.” Bark Psychosis courting this kind of tension to a point of no return with Hex is reminiscent of Slint before them, and the stories behind their second and final album, Spiderland. In that way, Bark Psychosis’ most striking similarity to another post-rock band doesn’t have to do with musical qualities, but in the way Spiderland and Hex pushed their respective creators to the brink.
Twenty-five years later, Hex is still more than capable of exerting a mysterious pull on its listener — and it is ‘listener’ singular, the album emits an aura of isolation. Spending long spells of time with it has the effect of making other rock-based records both past and present sound trad and predictable. Like in Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, new spaces open up in Hex where they weren’t before, its interior world grows beyond its bounds. It refutes the perception that this kind of music, with all its texture and complexity, was an intellectually distant pursuit. Ling had spoken early on about the spirituality and mysticism in what Bark Psychosis did, and that unquantifiable element doesn’t ebb over time or repetition. Bark Psychosis couldn’t hold together, but Hex’s power remains.