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White Hills H-p1 Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

New York psychedelic band rages against the machine with noisy assault.

Ben Hewitt 2011

In his tome 33 Revolutions Per Minute, Guardian rock critic Dorian Lynskey wondered if he’d written a eulogy for the protest song; whether if, rather than praising a still thriving form, he had merely uttered its burial rights. And indeed, as each week gives birth to some passing new scandal that goes without eliciting some strident artistic response, it’s hard to disagree: Billy Bragg, Manic Street Preachers and other like-minded politicised souls seem like relics of the past.

But what if the protest music of the 21st century is takes form not with swathes of political rhetoric, but through a pure blast of sound? What if, instead of clunky doggerel, there’s mind-altering loops of psychedelic rock? Step forward White Hills, the New York band whose second album for Thrill Jockey, H-p1, takes umbrage with a US government that they feel is co-opted and controlled by corporations. Or, as the band’s wonderfully named Ego Sensation said of the record’s themes: "H-p1 is symbolic of the simplification of complex ideas to keep the masses from questioning the system."

Such lofty posturing could have easily ended up sounding like the ill-informed scribblings of a sixth-form politics student, but H-p1 is more about mood, feel and texture than lyrical conceit. On opening track The Condition of Nothing, for example, it’s not just vocalist Dave W’s forlorn cry of "This thought tonight leaves you tangled empty" that conveys anger and despair; it’s the furious wall of noise that’s summoned behind it, as shrapnel of sound splinters off in different directions. Likewise, there’s something heavily oppressive about the repetitive, droning synths of No Other Way and the tribal-tinged drums of Monument that evokes a sense of dread without the need for words.

Even when the volume abates, the tension does not. Movement has the eerie feel of a sci-fi soundtrack with its clanging instrumentation, while the ethereal ambience of Hand In Hand is some of the spookiest space-noise you’ll hear all year. On this evidence, protest music isn’t dying, it’s just mutating into something multi-stranded, multi-layered and altogether more insidious. If only the sound of revolution could always be so forceful and beguiling…

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