White Hills So You Are… So You’ll Be

[Thrill Jockey; 2013]

Styles: space rock, krautrock, stoner rock, 60s punk
Others: Hawkwind, Oneida, Pontiak

Dave W. and Ego Sensation describe their band’s music very carefully. White Hills is “fuzzed out motorik space rock.” They use the phrase in almost all interviews. It’s in the header of the band’s website, and it’s in the bio above their Twitter feed. Like how it’s presented here, “fuzzed out motorik space rock” comes between quotation marks on most promotional materials and record catalog descriptions.

It’s an apt description and belies a healthy sense of self-awareness for a healthy band. The guitar-bass-drums trio has been at its best when it plays a Hawkwind-facing style of heavy rock that borrows heavily from the psychedelic Krautrock playbook while giving out the recklessness-as-transcendence vibe of “fuzzed out” punk like The Stooges. White Hills know what they are doing and how to do it, and they release a ton of this stuff every year. And every release has something worth hearing. And they tour a lot. There doesn’t seem to be any endgame here. White Hills have that satisfying “lifer” smell redolent of the best bands to play a Terrascope festival.

So You Are… So You’ll Be is the fourth album for Thrill Jockey in as many years, and this time, drummer Nick Name joins the permanent duo of Dave (guitar/vocals) and Ego (bass/vocals). Even though they’re incredibly prolific, they consistently play to all their best strengths, and it shows wonderfully on this album. “Forever in Space (Enlightened)” is the strongest example, opening up the back half of the record. A palm-muted guitar riff emerges cinematically, bad-ass road movie-like, on the horizon of tension-building synth squiggles. It feels like a nod to Neu!, Can, and the rest of the gang. Then the band dramatically hangs on an echoing guitar chord just long enough to explode into a thick, beautifully-rendered groove. Dave W.’s vocals emerge, hazily, blending seamlessly into the sound, the vocal effect reminiscent of Spacemen 3. But the band still sounds 100% White Hills, and the guitar solo is a must-hear experience, with some excellent, subtle effects that — with the help of producer Martin Bisi (recorder of Swans, Live Skull, Last Exit, Boredoms, Cop Shoot Cop, etc.) — make this album ideal for headphone listening.

Now I would like to politely and respectfully voice what I see as the biggest drawback to the White Hills experience: I do not find the vocals of Dave W. and Ego Sensation to be particularly memorable. When their voices melt into the background as instruments, as they do on “Forever in Space (Enlightened),” I can abide. But when the vocals come to the forefront in a traditional rock vocal context, like on lead single “In Your Room,” I yearn to skip. Both do vocals on “Room,” and the general sense I get is of a deadened snarl (also see their old track “The Condition of Nothing”), which feels at odds with the vibe of their best work. Every time the vocals come front and center, the instrumentation becomes more industrial. Dave and Ego have cited industrial influences in interviews, but on “Room,” the industrial-like guitar/bass riff feels forced, perhaps best described as a mechanical take on mid-90s Sonic Youth. It just doesn’t quite wormhole into my ear, and then I press a button on my device to move somewhere else on the record. It’s too bad, too, because there’s a solid groove and guitar solo toward the end of “Room.”

With so much music released by White Hills, a lot of the tracks end up being mood-lighting (“InWords,” “OutWords,” “The Internal Monologue,” “Circulating”), but the album’s back-half, kicked off by “Forever in Space (Enlightened),” is what keeps me spinning. “Rare Upon the Earth” is excellent once it moves out of its short-lived, vocal-dominant beginning, while “MIST (Winter)” is a simmering standout instrumental that builds nicely with synthesizers before swooping in and out of a bubblegummy guitar riff. It is a blissful way to end this record of “fuzzed out motorik space rock.”

Links: White Hills - Thrill Jockey

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