While I was getting into “Dead,” the first track on White Hills’ new self-titled LP on Thrill Jockey, I was somewhat distracted trying to figure out who this galloping charge of the psych brigade reminded me of. The guessing game continued through the second track, the more free-form “Counting Sevens,” and by track three’s “Three Quarters” — which rides a repetitive, head-nodding, fuzzed-out riff for nine minutes, with a killer guitar solo appearing about three-quarters of the way through — the niggling problem had intensified so much that I looked to the press release for a clue. Therein lay the answer, one so obvious I literally exhaled an audible “Oooohhh!”:
Recorded over the course of three days in the summer of 2009, basic tracks for the album were laid down at The Ocropolis, Oneida’s studio located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. All drums on the album were played by Kid Millions of Oneida.
The influence shows. Save for the vocals, the first three tracks on White Hills could be easily mistaken for unreleased Oneida jams, with repetitive riffage, wild-but-controlled drumming, droning undertones, and tear-ass psychedelic guitar solos. Sure, if you’re going to sound like another contemporary rock band, Oneida’s not a bad one from which to borrow a drummer and recording studio. But the simulacrum was distracting to say the least.
And just when I was getting used to this idea — enjoying the rock, but with reservations — the album switched gears on track four, “Let the Right One In,” slowing the tempo down to create a meditative mood. The song may or may not be named for that cool Swedish vampire movie everybody went nuts over last year, but it gives off an eerie enough vibe for that to be plausible. If we’re going to go with imaginary soundtracks, though, for me a title like “Solaris” or “2001” would be more suggestive, as its plodding rhythm, swimming-through-pudding bass, and phased electronic washes bring to mind humanoids floating weightless in a vast expanse of stars, probably in slow motion.
“We Will Rise” continues in this vein, slowing things down even more by cribbing from Neu!’s slow jams (though I’m not entirely sure it isn’t an extra-stoned cover of The Stooges’ “We Will Fall”), while the aptly-named ambient drone of “Glacial” dispenses with drums altogether to round out the cosmiche musik trilogy portion of the album. Closer “Polvere Di Stelle” is a 12-minute slow-build wall of guitar and drums that explodes into an extended psych guitar freak-out; imagine one of the longer track on a live Spacemen 3 album, but with a more involved guitar solo and chanted vocals urging us to “Leave this world behind” because “We are the sunshine.”
All of this makes White Hills sound a bit generic and derivative, and I suppose it can be at times. We shouldn’t expect every band to rewrite the rock lexicon, but in a time when we’re inundated with new bands and albums faster than we can process, the space-rock continuum keeps growing at a pace that is nowadays met with ambivalence. Being on Thrill Jockey means this album will probably be heard by more people than other acts of the same ilk, but will White Hills tower above the rest? Will White Hills the album stand the test of time? Probably not, but it’s enjoyable enough in the here and now. And I hear they’re a killer live band.