Stephen Benson, half of Hills! Werewolves! Run!, is also half of We Are the Wooden Houses, but the two groups sound totally different from one another. The former takes post-rock as its starting point, while the latter delves into psych, raga and loop and at times is happily reminiscent of Led Zeppelin.
Benson had originally intended this to be a single solo disc, but along the way the tracks kept expanding and he felt the need to call for backup. At first, Alastair Popple was only meant to add support, but the artist’s contributions added such intrinsic value that the project became a compositional collaboration. For readers of this site, Island of Death is the main draw, due to the presence of vocals on Halloween Haarp; but the bulk of Halloween Haarp is just as dynamic.
The five track Island of Death (referred to as a “mini-album”) is a pure Bayou classic of guitar, banjo and occasional drone. Opener “Cursed” sets the stage with plucked strings and greatly recessed vocals, sounding like the private song of a swamp creature. Just as the listener begins to get sucked into the mire, an electric blast jolts the atmosphere, scattering the gators. An operatic female voice – perhaps a sample, perhaps an uncredited wail – beckons to the wranglers. The male vocals turn to church chants. The acoustic guitar continues its siren call. Something weird and compelling is going on here, but there’s no map of the swamp; one either sends the boat forward or stays on the banks.
“Beechead” bears the first strains of Zeppelin (specifically “Going to California”, without vocals and mandolin). The vibe is relaxed yet confident. This prepares the listener for the album’s centerpiece, the twelve-minute “Kora”, which begins as a kind strum, descends into light plucking, and collapses into ambience, accompanied by what sounds like a light animal wail. After a few minutes, it rouses itself from sleep and puts on new clothes: electric drone, insistent bass, hypnotic drums. The ease of transition is magnificent; so much changes while so little abrades. This gentle spirit pervades the remaining tracks as well: “Expansion Dig” entices like the western work of Calexico, while “Lilith” returns to the timbre of “Beechead”, closing the set with a brilliant example of impeccably miked finger-style acoustic guitar.
The uniform nature of Island of Death is not found on Halloween Haarp, which flirts with many styles both between and within tracks. The challenge is to locate the road between the traffic cones. The biggest drawback is a minor one: the spoken word samples found on “Vampire Skeleton Mystery” and “Witchs Cat” (sic) are far too obvious, especially for self-proclaimed “druggy” music: the first track references LSD and the second Jim Jones. The irony is that these otherwise stellar tracks are brought down not by the performers, but by the inclusion of outside sounds. Remove the samples, and the album suddenly seems a lot more instrumental, with vocals remaining on only two of the seven selections. “Witchs Cat” is the best track on either disc: an eleven-minute workout that draws from disparate sources, including hauntology and psychedelica, before diving head-first into an all-out raga jam. The other three pieces, all in the two minute range, match the timbre of Island of Death and might have fit better there: easy enough to adjust at home with a laptop or remote.
The bottom line, for those seeking greater definition: the album is available as a free download, but it’s worth paying for. Island of Death alone justifies the purchase, and Halloween Haarp, despite its haphazard sequencing, makes a fine adornment. (Richard Allen)