Nobody plays a solo quite like Neil Michael Hagerty. The lines that he squeals out have the ability to switch on you at random, like refracted light off of the ocean during sunset, temporarily and suddenly blinding, leaving a dissipating soft focus filter on your vision as it readjusts itself to the slow amber landscape. His guitar work flips from the glossy side and back to the matte, rotating over the thin edge and reappearing aggressive and broad. It scrapes, shimmers, submerges, and rusts away. The way that he mans his instrument is not unlike a sea bird, alternating harsh squawks with majestic gliding. It can scoop sand onto your face and then bath it in sunlight. Some people play feedback; Hagerty often plays the buzz of my turntable when the wire isn’t grounded, and he manages to make that static breathe, shift, move, and dance. His music often hits me in a weird place: the middle. Don’t over think it or you’ll realize that you’ve scurried off of a cliff and are standing on nothing. Dismiss it all together and, well… you’re simply missing out. And if you quit paying attention to his output after the 2001 breakup of Royal Trux, the highly influential trash rock outfit co-fronted by former flame and current Black Banana Jennifer Herrema, then you’ve been missing out on a lot.
The Trux had a great run, but equally as admirable as what they accomplished together is the determination of the band’s ringleaders to move forward separately with brand new ventures and evolving ideas. After putting out a few albums under his own name, the last decade has seen Hagerty release some of the greatest material of his career through LPs credited to his project The Howling Hex. Furthermore, he’s produced music for artists like Bill Callahan; collaborated in such projects as Weird War; and put out a Royal Trux comic, a book of essays, and even a super chaotic, yet ambitious, 4-disc audio re-imagining of his 1997 sci-fi novel, Victory Chimp. Since we last spoke with Herrema (September, 2011), she retooled her band RTX, tranforming them into Black Bananas; released a really solid album with the new group; and forged the collaboration, Feathered Fish, with jewelry designer Pamela Love, with the goal of releasing “American-made artifacts” (jewelry, art, clothing, etc). She even has an art show scheduled for tomorrow in the gallery at Dilettante in LA, which will coincide with a performance by the new Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) project Body/Head, at the same venue. Since we last spoke with Hagerty (roughly the same time), he’s relocated to Denver from New Mexico, assembled a new formation of The Howling Hex, and put out 2 tremendous full-lengths. His most recent album being the confusingly titled, The Best of the Howling Hex, which was just released 2 days ago. It’s comprised of all new material.
From the very beginning, The Best Of the Howling Hex clearly separates itself from the previous studio release, 2011‘s Wilson Semiconductors. The most immediately noticeable difference is that there are now drums. Neither that last album or the one prior–Earth Junk (2008)–featured a drummer at all, forcing the rhythm and implied beat to be sustained by the implementation of some crafty guitar work. Much like Doug Martsch‘s original intention with Built To Spill, Hagerty is consistently switching up his collaborators, forcing each Hex release to venture into different territory by default. One notable inclusion to this current incarnation, beyond having a drummer, is the recruitment of Apples in Stereo bassist, Eric Allen. All of the instrumentation on Wilson Semiconductors was handled by Hagerty himself, with a fair amount of intention placed on the stacking and interplay of guitar tracks. Earth Junk featured some vocals by a singer named Eleanor Whitmore, and an organ/rhodes/synthesizer player (Sweney Tidball) as the only other contributors to the frontman’s guitar, voice, and electronics. I’m, personally, a fan of all three releases, but I really fell in love with the way that Wilson Semiconductors was layered and the new focus created by NMH working in solitude and recording it at the border town of Tornillo, Tx. The album, which featured a mere 4 tracks that averaged out to over 8 minutes a piece, really allowed the guitar lines to travel freely, weave around each other, and mutate into endless directions, alternating between stepping into the foreground and then dipping back out of range. They were never oppressed by urgency. Not to say that it didn’t have it’s off-kilter moments, because there were plenty of the usual fuzzed-out left-field skronks and blips, as per usual with any Hagerty release, but there was also a smooth airiness to those open sections where the compositions would unfold like a game of Pitfall–swing on a vine, hop across some crocodile heads, hurdle some rolling logs, fall into and then climb out of a pit, etc. There’s been some level of semi-opaque fuzz surrounding Neil‘s music as far back as his work with Pussy Galore in the 80s, but Wilson Semiconductors felt as exposed as ever, while meandering uninhibited through uncharted territory. After gradually paring down the lineup until it reached it’s most basic formation as a one-man unit over the last couple of releases, The Best Of… operates as an opportunity for NMH to take whatever he’s rediscovered or honed within himself and apply it to his largest ensemble in 6 years.
Of the more recent releases, The Best Of... tends to lean closer to a less immediately abrasive Earth Junk. Whereas the latter featured the relentless looping of some disorientingly acidic guitar lines –while working as a barista a few years back, a customer that was studying for her finals, asked me to turn off the relatively grating “Annie Get Redzy” (which I actually like), because it was clearly driving her nuts– the repetitious phrases on The Best Of the Howling Hex are more tightly coiled and direct, overall. And while it doesn’t possess the outright circus organ of its predecessor, the new release definitely still retains a noticeable carnival vibe. This effect is only amplified by a consistent beat throughout the album that begins with a basic “one-two, one-two, one-two” and never veers much further than the simple Polka-esque “oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa,” but it’s more likely influenced by Mexican Norteño and mariachi music. That South Western undercurrent also leaves some tracks tinged with the occasional Meat Puppets accent, which is something that I will never have a problem with.
The songs continue with Hagerty‘s slow evolution of having the elements unveil themselves more prominently outside of the thick veiled fog of earlier Hex releases like All Night Fox or the raucous jams of Royal Trux‘s Accelerator. In a similar fashion to how the Trux transitioned into a more structured unit after releasing a chaotically brilliant, often dissonant, breathing demon of an album in Twin Infinitives, The Hex continues to evolve as well. More than anything, Accelerator makes me want to drive a muscle car through the window of a brick storefront while chain-smoking Marlboro reds and swigging whiskey with the cool night air whipping across my face. The Hex material often feels like waking up the morning after in a strange little Mexican town, hungover and disoriented. The sun is up and shit looks weird. Your body is weak and sore, yet curiously invigorated. There’s always been some level of residue clinging to a Hagerty track, but this new material is definitely achieving a fresher feeling. He’s grimy and beaten, but at least he’s popped the tags on a fresh pair of tube socks. The Best of… has Neil and company coming to in their own filth on the dirt floor of an anonymous hut, wiping sleep out of their eyes, stretching to crack their bones, and getting back on the horse to drink and eat mescaline in the afternoon heat with the buzzards and the backward genetic anomalies native to a psychedelic Jodorowsky fever dream. While much of the Trux material moved through clouds of static fuzz, any implied discordance with The Hex often seems to derive from each instrument/component having it’s own distinct sound that separates it from the rest. This was even true with the various individual guitar tracks on Wilson Semiconductors, and I enjoy the idea of having each separate element suspended in proximity to each other like sprockets congealed in a jello mold, or the separate stacked layers of an acetate overlay used to illustrate a frog dissection in a science book, rather than having it all just merge into one direct buzzing sonic laser beam. This latest effort falls somewhere in between, especially on “Highlights” which has extended sections that are engulfed in fuzz, but, for the most part, those elements are only introduced momentarily or during a solo and then recede into the background.
A good percentage of the power in The Best of the Howling Hex comes as much from potential energy as it does any actual deployment of it. Just by knowing Neil Michael Hagerty‘s capabilities, something that he casually hints at throughout, is enough to build the suspense and sustain a track until he’s ready to unleash the fury. Through much of it, the elements simply dance around like raisins in a mason jar spiked with baking soda and vinegar. His guitar is somehow both lackadaisical and aggressive; angular, yet with fluidity, and it is often either drilling craters into a thick block of sound or spidering throughout it like an electric current, reanimating a stitched-up corpse and making that dense beast stomp around a bit. The swirling riffs would be almost hypnotic if they weren’t so fucking caustic and shrill. And then there’s the monotony of the drumbeat and, depending on how deep or shallow your focus, the monotony of the trashy squealing noise over that monotonous drumbeat. But if it’s, more or less, the same formula throughout, then how come every song doesn’t sound exactly the same (unless you’re my girlfriend, to which, I’m pretty sure that it does all sound the same)? Neil isn’t really sitting back waiting for the solo the whole time, even if, at some moments, the listener might be; instead he’s consistently making minor, yet fairly interesting, adjustments to the phrases and moving them along, expanding the dimensionality of the tracks an inch at a time. Much of this subtlety isn’t as consciously noticeable, due to being lost in moments that feel more aggressive. Similarly, much of the aggression can often get lost during the more technical portions. The effectiveness is still there; it’s the obviousness that’s missing. It’s all just trudging forward and the concrete structure of the rhythm section actually aids in pronouncing that and providing it with something to move along, reflect, plunge into, and richochet off of. And then, of course, there’s that potential energy and the reality that we all know that, at any minute, this man can chop into that guitar, rattling the patina off of those strings, and sending out a debilitating sonic boom, shattering the stained glass backdrop, and wilting everything in its wake like a harrier jet skimming a wheat field.
And again… there’s still that monotonous rhythm. If you watch the history channel or true crime programs for long enough, you’ll eventually see some scientific shit go down where modern technology is used to try and simulate what someone might have looked like, simply based on the shape of their exhumed and/or abandoned skull. Do our skeletons really determine such a large percentage of our external appearances? If so, would that mean that the most minor of variances would really manifest itself as that much of a difference between two otherwise identical beings? [How many endless skull variations are there, anyway? Would plastic surgery disprove at least some of those implications?]. Well, The Howling Hex has a brand new skeleton again and, even when the bones of the tracks are lined up in similar fashion to one another, Neil Hagerty has proven that there are way more than a handful of ways to hang the flesh. The guitarist utilizes that simple, repetitive, upbeat rhythm in a couple of ways. One bi-product, featured on the song “Street Caps” in particular, is for the repetition to build an incredible amount of tension, like a Reebok tongue that’s been over pumped. But more than anything, that consistent back beat is used to create a foundation for Neil to bowl over, skid across, and pull aerial guitar tricks around. He’s testing it’s structural resonance; challenging it to handle everything that he throws at it, pulls out from under it like a table cloth, or chips away at it with. He’s challenging it to topple over, wash away or crack in half, while controlling the only elements that have the potential to affect it. Playing god, NMH builds little towns just to flood them. Summoning up monstrous dust storms, he sends them whipping down main street or threatening to uproot canvas carnival tents.
Or maybe it’s all just aimless skronks and fuzz. Who knows? Does it even really matter? Nobody believes anything anymore, anyway, right? Maybe that’s true, but maybe that also makes the fact that Hagerty still believes in the idea of continuing to explore new ways to express his visions, after all of these years, even more worthwhile. But this music isn’t for everyone and I don’t think that he’s trying to make music for everyone–if he is, he’s missed the mark terribly. And the Wile E Coyote comparison remains an apt one, because this guitar wizard is never afraid to paint a target onto the side of a rock wall and fling himself into it, or to overshoot the entire rhythm section on a pair of rocket skates. This is experimental music, but it’s of an organic nature that isn’t overly sterile, scientific, or intellectualized. It’s experimentation in the most basic way that all real art should be, driven my human curiosity and passion, straight from the gut and chest, rather than robotic algorithms, soulless technical prowess, and a desire for public adoration. Neil is still pushing sound around to see where it goes, and he’s willing to fire the occasional sandblaster at a dilapidated barn or throw an electric toaster in a clawfoot if it facilitates his auditory whims and needs. This is the pure, stripped-down, focus and guttural human experimentation of continuously trying to land a kickflip in a suburban parking lot at dusk.
More than a sum of its parts, I can genuinely feel something from what Hagerty is playing, and it’s a feeling that is uniquely provided by his compositions. A lot of people may not tap in and get anything from it, while others may just not like that very same feeling at all. This record is, in no way, going to appeal to everyone, but long-time Hagerty fans will probably really enjoy it. If you’re not feeling it, is it worth the effort to try and understand something that sounds like trash to you? If that’s a legitimate question, then you’re probably over thinking it. Like anything else, art is subjective and this is, in particular, often very astringent art. What it comes down to is that you’re either with him or against him… or you alternate back and forth between the two… or, hell, maybe you’re just totally indifferent. So… what it really comes down to is the fact that it doesn’t really matter at all; it’s just music. As to be expected, there’s a lot of Hagerty guitar on this album, so if you’re not a fan of what this man produces, then this is obviously not for you in the first place. But I personally love Neil Michael Hagerty‘s guitar work, so, for me, it’s enough to just listen to an album that features him pushing out blankets of sound, or even listening to him try one metaphorical flip-trick after the other. And when he is landing those combinations, there’s nothing else quite like it. But, for what it’s worth, I’m also kind of into those moments where it feels like I’m passing out from a concussion in a broken snow globe. Go figure.
The Best of the Howling Hex can be ordered in LP, CD, MP3, and Flac formats now from Drag City Records, via THIS LINK!
CLICK HERE to link to The Believer Blog and read a short interview where NMH addresses questions regarding the brand new “Primetime Clown” video (featured above)
Also, make sure to pick up the latest issue (#34) of Ghettoblaster Magazine. There’s a reoccurring section toward the beginning called “What’s on Deck?” and, in this issue, Hagerty lists off a number of things that he’s particularly fond of these days.
[Spoiler #1: one of them is the show Workaholics.]
[Spoiler #2: I wrote the introduction for that piece.]