Style: Psychedelic Folk Rock
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
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Here's something utterly sublime! I've been listening to this over and over for a few days now and it's still as fresh now as on my first time through, when I wanted to join in because it felt ritualistic and inviting. I didn't know what they were doing, but it felt like I should be part of it, because it would help to achieve something worthy. What I have no idea, but it feels right, because, even if this is often dark, it's never destructive.
Hexvessel describe what they do as "wyrd folk" and that's as appropriate as anything else I can come up with. The base is clearly in folk, mostly of the traditional English nature, though occasionally this sounds like the Mamas and the Papas on acid. While the band are Finnish, its leader is British, a gentleman called Mathew McNerney who sings and plays guitar. From his lead, they venture politely and confidently into occult rock, alt rock, prog rock, psychedelic rock, even roots rock, all with consistent success.
Every song here resonated with me and almost every song here, at one point during the last few days, was my favourite. I'm not sure that an order has settled into place yet and it may never. It may depend on my particular mood at any particular time. I've already woken up in the morning with different songs playing in my head, so I'll run through them all.
Billion Year Old Being blew me away. It's seven minutes, easily the longest song on the album but it does so much and it does it all effortlessly. It's a song of two halves. The first is rather like a theatrical occult rock band of the early seventies, with chanting, heavy organ and staccato riffs. After it's built to an instrumental crescendo, it transitions to the second half, which is folk, gentle even when the drums kick back in and a darkness hangs over it all.
Demian continues that but with a whole slew of layers and effects applied to render it much darker. It's much harder to be gentle while playing with fuzz and distortion and walls of urgency, but there are moments, even if they're hiding on the other side of a cloud peeking through on occasion.
Fire of the Mind goes back to gentle, with crystal clear picking and a viola that aches like a hurdy gurdy. This one's a vocal track, with McNerney at his most free but plaintive, almost bleeding out emotion. It's a cover of a song by Coil, but it's completely at home here and, like Johnny Cash did so often, they've frankly taken ownership. They may not have written it but it may be their song now.
Bog Bodies is gentle in a completely different way, like occult rock played as smooth jazz. Kimmo Helén, who contributed the viola on Fire of the Mind, brings in a gloriously smoky trumpet here. This is so laid back that it has almost no weight. I felt like I could easily balance it on a fingertip like a butterfly and, like a butterfly, it eventually catches a breath and floats off into the sky.
Phaedra sits at the heart of the album, with an ominous drum echoing a real power in the vocal. McNerney isn't gentle here; he's commanding, rather like a doomladen Nick Cave. "I have strength," he begins. "I fear nothing." What an opening statement! The sheer emphasis in play is helped by the song being bookended by very different instrumental interludes. Sic Luceat Lux is wild and experimental, mixing Jandek with Coil. Is that a bicycle bell? We should ask Antti Haapapuro, who's credited on "found sounds". However, Family, is a sliver of light in the darkness, peaceful acoustic folk guitar.
And that leads us into the final three songs, which play with gentleness in different ways. Kindred Moon, the title track, I guess, is elevated by what sounds like reeds thrashing a steel barn for percussion. McNerney croons as if that's the most natural sound in the world. The chorus is almost syrupy, soothing us as we "pray to your light, kindred moon". There's darkness here too, but it's epic darkness and the song is a ritual ward against it.
If I had to pick a favourite, which I really don't want to do, it's likely to be Magical & Damned. It's another gentle song that's ever as dark as it is light. It has a late Nick Cave piano-driven vibe, but with a far softer vocal than Phaedra, subtly teasing its dark truth rather than flaunting it, through a lyric that could have been written by Leonard Cohen.
Again McNerney captures us early. I couldn't quite grab the entire opening lines, but it's about hurricanes with female names being the deadliest and when swept away by you, "it feels good to die". It's achingly beautiful, especially when the chorus highlights a lament. "She's so beautiful and so magical... and damned." This song so calmly eviscerates me every time. It's seeped into my soul.
Given the unenviable task of following it and also wrapping up the album is Joy of Sacrifice, which title capably sums up the dualistic light and dark sounds of this album. It's another gentle song and another beautiful one, a backing vocal layering over the lead with incredible effect, reminiscent of Linda Perhacs. It's heartfelt and hypnotic and it's a suitably haunting way to leave us.
I hadn't heard of Hexvessel before, though McNerney did contribute a great guest vocal to the Me and That Man album I reviewed recently. I'll surely be picking up their back catalogue after this experience, though. The band were formed in 2009 and this is their sixth album, so there's plenty for me still to discover. I'm totally hooked, enough that I'll be utterly shocked if this doesn't turn out to be my album of the year.
Frankly, this is as close as I've come to giving a 10/10, which I refuse to do out of principle; I believe that a maximum can only fairly be given after at least five years of still sounding this damn good and remaining relevant. It may well get there, but I'm sure that I'll be adding it to my frequently replayed list, where it will fit well alongside the first couple of Leonard Cohen albums, as well as Joy Division and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.
Now I just need to figure out how to stop listening to it so I can move on to review something else.