Every so often, when I’m not fighting supervillains and the pressures of my secret identity grind me down, I like to go sit in the dark with some great, great sounds on, preferably something suitably widescreen and vision-inducing, just like our forefathers did back in renaissance times with Dark Side Of The Moon; I just want that experience of being transported somewhere else, I want to board that big psychedelic bus with ‘Further’ written on the destination board. My space cruise of choice recently has been White Hills Heads On Fire, their debut LP from 2007.
Being the experienced psychonaut I aim straight for my favourite cut, the 26-minute track ‘Don’t Be Afraid’, that’s the whole thing with this type of psych-space rock – aim big. 26 minutes is inherently better than 13 minutes, it just gives you so much more s-p-a-c-e to create more, umm, space (you know the type with stars in it and stuff). The track starts off with what sounds like a fog horn, the sound of the very winds of space itself, a ringtone and then the guitar picking a sinister 5 notes, over a light beat and a wash of whoosh*. That’s just the first station on our journey, apart from the title phrase I can’t make any of the sparse vocals out, they’re there to add texture more than insight. It does, of course get much louder at points and throughout we get treated to some fine, existential guitaring from Dave W – some wonderful spiralling explorations, very ably accompanied by Ego Sensation’s bass and Bob Bellomo’s clever drumming. The quiet coda to the track is one of my favourite bits of Heads On Fire.
The fact that to close the LP we then slam into the punky Sabbath-punk of ‘Eternity’, which just sounds filthy, highlights a lot of what I like about this band. Another chunk of what I like about White Hills is, as Mr Hubner wrote, and I paraphrase his words of wisdom here, are that they aren’t instant, although some tracks and pieces are, I find that their work often takes a while to slide into full focus for me. That’s great, I have no problems unknotting and working on an album listen after listen, if it’s good enough and their stuff always is. I hope that doesn’t make Heads On Fire sound like a chore, it isn’t because it rocks damn hard.
The fact that this little beauty is on red vinyl, a rerelease by Thrill Jockey for their 20th anniversary, does it no harm in my eyes. Neither does the fact that they have a track called ‘Return Of Speed Toilet’, oh yes! It is a minute-long intro for the best space rocker on the album too, ‘Visions of the Past, Present and Future’. Imagine if Sabbath had stayed on their rocket ship after recording ‘Into The Void’ and teamed up with Hawkwind circa Doremi Fasol Latido, in order to fight the good fight against sobriety, coherence and squareness … in space. Well, you’re in the right ballpark. The opening swirl of ‘Radiate’ certainly hits the spot with yet another titanic guitar solo, fireworking out of its’ centre. Only, ‘Oceans of Sound’ fails to hit the spot, sounding a bit clumsy and heavy-footed to me.
Psych rock like Heads On Fire has to tread a fine line I think. Space rock makes a virtue of long songs and guitar virtuosity, Dave W certainly has that in spades, but if you get it wrong then you risk it all turning into a self-indulgent fart fest. If I get to interview psych types I always ask them when they know a song is finished, because I think the temptation must always be to add another three minutes of excess, another sky-scraping pre solo, another minute, or two of chugging at the main riff again – Dave’s answer to me was ‘You just know’. Simple then, but it points to all the discipline you need to have to produce music this effective at transporting the listener. For all its sprawling space, these are tightly plotted and piloted grooves, infused with enough of New York’s kinetic energy to keep it buzzing free.
More to the point, Heads On Fire certainly does the job for me in the dark. Next stop, further.
*a ‘Wash of Whoosh’ to describe spacey keyboard effects is now a registered trademark of 1537 Omni-corp PLC. Don’t even think about reading it aloud without paying me mucho royalties.