The era of rock music as a driving force in popular culture has passed. However, true rock fans – the “heads,” if you will – have kept the spirit of rock, however cliched such a concept may be, alive. The dedication of countless underground bands, small clubs, boutique record labels and their obsessive collectors, writers, promoters, and general scene-watchers has resulted in the continuation of a thriving contemporary avant rock scene in the US and abroad.
One of the leading lights of the current US heavy rock scene is White Hills, who have just released the ambitious double LP Hp-1on Thrill Jockey. Opener “Condition of Nothing” highlights front man Dave W.’s droning, deadpan vocal delivery, which anchors a reverb soaked, riff-heavy piece featuring feedback-heavy solos spiraling off into space. The ten minute “No Other Way” slowly emerges from tightly coiled percussion into a bass-heavy throbber before looping distortion careens into spaced out keyboard maneuvers (provided by Shazzula, a recent French recruit to the White Hills fold). “Paradise” is another sprawling tune with a locked-in motorik groove, showcasing White Hills’ uncanny ability to tap into the transgressive appeal of groundbreaking avant rock groups like Hawkwind or Can and transform familiar forms into something wholly original, defying the easy snobbery of spot-the-reference critiques through an audibly fierce commitment to their playing.
The group’s expertise at shorter songs like the blown out “Upon Arrival,” dominated by a bluesy central riff, is such a convincing example of the form that if it were rescued off an obscure private press LP from 1972, digital crate diggers would undoubtedly blog it with fervor. On the other end of the spectrum, “A Need to Know” – a gorgeous, percussion-less ambient piece – demonstrates that White Hills can beat the suddenly fashionable vintage synthesizer worshipers at their own game. Hp-1 functions as a shorthand master class in recent underground proclivities, from the atonal ambiance of sputtering noise on “Hand in Hand” (reminiscent of sometimes White Hills drummer Kid Millions’ group Oneida‘s recent experimental opus Absolute II) or the Fennesz-like processed guitar of “Monument.”
The epic title track encompasses White Hills’ proclivities from chugging hard rock to extended instrumental interludes and deploys an unforgettable guitar solo at the ten minute mark. When the ubiquity of access to new music makes every waking minute feel like a hopped up media consumption bender in pursuit of the freshest and most hyped tunes, White Hills have challenged open-minded rock fans to commit to a work that requires patience and a critical ear. Rock music’s era of overarching influence on culture has no doubt passed into the historical twilight, but artistry and ambition in the form is alive and well on records like Hp-1.