14 December 2012

Album Review: Evil Hand - Wulver

Evil Hand - Wulver

One of the surprise highlights of last year came early with the February release of "Rain Check" by Evil Hand, essentially a solo vehicle for Derek Bates – variously of Genaro and Bottle of Evil. Like all early-in-the-year releases, it's all too easy to find it eclipsed by later events but it was good to see some fulsome praise surfacing at year-end for this release, hinting at the insistently memorable nature of the material. So as autumn descended, Bates retreated to work on the follow-up to "Rain Check", emerging with a churning, dark and equally noisy collection of music which once again seems barely able to contain the ebullient pop sensibilities attempting to burst from its core. Again here on this longer set of songs, Bates manages to couple screeds of perception-altering white noise with a knack for a life-affirming, soaring chorus, seemingly melding the two together with relative ease.

There are almost too many highlights here to describe, but since I've developed a reputation for writing way too much, I'm going to have a crack at it of course - beginning with "The Waves Still Come" which hides its dark heart behind a sunny disposition, a shimmer of noise and a suspiciously jaunty, up-tempo beat. Bates' tries hard to convince you everything is fine from the outset, but once the chiming guitars join and the vocal climbs, it moves up a corresponding emotional gear and any pretence at being nearly as happy as the music implies quickly falls away. It's easy to let the simplicity of the arrangement hide the fact that this is a thoughtful and introspective fragment dressed up as a neat little nugget of classic, Byrds-like pop. Meanwhile, "Exile on Fr. Griffin Road" comfortably occupies the elegiac territory which The Go-Betweens used to inhabit. Namely, a downbeat and intelligent corner of the musical universe where it never stopped being cool to have swoops of pretty, atmospheric guitar curling around wistful vocals. Like all the best songs, there is a journey at the heart of this one – through Galway's suburbs and over the river into town, feeling out of place and out of time, with music finally giving way to monologue as an apparently well-lubricated Irishman delivers a stream of boozy wisdom.

The curiously named "It's Dark Enough Outside, Don't Be Dark Inside" invokes the spirit of Yo La Tengo, starting with a nagging little loop which continues to noodle oddly away over a woozy reel of guitars and glockenspiels. Things take a dramatic sonic shift here, as a collision of electronica accompanies a growing tide of voices ranging from eerie whispers to howls of frustration. It's unsettling, even a little tricky to listen to at points, but it makes complete sense in the context of this strange but wonderful record. In utter contrast, "Everything Reminds Me" is an unashamed slab of catchy, sharp-edged pop hung around buzzsaw guitars and tight electronic rhythms which could have emerged directly from "Autoamerican" era Blondie. Throw in a reverb-heavy chorus which captures the imagination on the very first listen, and couple this with a sample of Charlie Chaplin's stirring and portentous speech from "The Great Dictator" and you have an oddly compelling album highlight in the making. This ushers in the impressive and affecting "Somewhere To Burn" which bleeps and twitters into blissful existence, before covering more familiar Evil Hand ground. Beautifully noisy guitars are layered over each other, building in complexity and volume until things collapse into a whispered vocal – a battle with the demons of self-doubt, abandonment and destruction is played out over an uncharacteristically summery backdrop of wheeling melodies. A wall of shimmering noise grows imperceptibly at first until it dominates the track. It all ends rather suddenly - but the ghosts of the noise remain, and perhaps those demons never really do go away?

It's remarkably easy to focus on the sheer range of noise and melody Evil Hand is capable of generating, but lyrically too Bates' songcraft shouldn't be overlooked. Able to score smarting emotional direct hits when it hurts most alongside a hazier kind of gentle introspection, both are delivered in a quiet, laconic voice which carries surprising weight and gravity. There's grim humour too – not least during "As Good As It Gets" where it is effectively deployed alongside pathos as the protagonist unveils the tragic details of his unravelling life in true Nashville fashion. There is a deep, heartfelt sigh of resignation embedded here among the gentle acoustic guitars and achingly melancholic melodies. It's hard to figure whether this is a song about making peace with the world or kicking against it, but in either case it displays the knack Derek Bates has for taking nagging, insistent melodies and marrying them with smart, sometimes funny and often dark lyrics.

Evil Hand's "Wulver" is a refreshingly simple record in many ways, relying wholly on the quality of the songs rather than recording trickery or complex arrangements. Working alone to perfect this record, Bates has achieved a couple of pretty remarkable things – firstly in capturing a full, sastisfyingly solid sound far, far bigger than a solo project would suggest. He has also displayed an incredible musical literacy, absorbing and assimilating influences from decades of pop music – but in doing so, never sounding derivative or formulaic. There are surprises hidden in the deep pools of feedback, layers of found sounds and sudden breathtaking twists of melodic guitar. Surprises well worth discovering.

You can pick up "Wulver" from Bandcamp, and pretty soon from iTunes and other online sources too. While you're there, I'd recommend investigating both "Huldra" and "Rain Check" for more of the same.

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