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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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617 Down.


*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.

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27 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid

  1. Was just listening to ‘Black Valleys’ (love the inversed play on their band name) yesterday! One of their lil’ limited cd releases that was special for Record Store Day a few years ago. I have a bunch of their records and they can be a little hit or miss with me but mostly Hit and that being said one of the only newish bands that I’ve gotten into enough to buy their records when I see them without question…also saw them once but they got to SF late and had to play a 20 minute set of which I caught the last 10! I savoured those tones!
    Again, great taste my man!

    1. Cheers Jeff! Dave W is from SF isn’t he?

      Like I said I’m not very objective at all, Dave W has usurped my ‘fave living guitarist’ spot from Ben Chasney. Plus they’re super cool and very friendly folk too – tick all the boxes for me.

      That sounds like a very compressed gig experience!

  2. I come here for the humour and the music. but I stay for the superb writing. Well done!

    You keep talking about this band, and I keep thinking ‘I need to get some of their stuff!’ and I have to be honest I didn’t see any of their stuff in Taranna a couple of weeks ago. I’ll to rely on online sources, then.

    I do like this time of year in Further.

  3. White Hills are still very high (haha) on my list. I very much like the last album and everything else that I’ve heard (bits and pieces from previous stuff).

    Anyhoo, great write up. This is where my ‘further’ starts, I think. Also, I thought “they’ve been on the go that long!?!?!” … took a second read before the brain kicked into gear! “Oh, Thrill Jockey’s anniversary!”. Jings.

    1. 3am?! Either you’re working nights, partying like the Crüe, or there’s a restless little one in the house!

      Thank you very much J, I’m not very objective where WH are concerned, but this is a great LP.

  4. ‘Wash of Whoosh’ is indeed an excellent phrase, full of analogue goodness.
    Now, if you’d care to define ‘existential guitaring’ we can all get some rest.

    (Great write up Joe. Must extend my White Hills collection with this one).

  5. Brilliant write up for a brilliant LP. Don’t tell Dave and Ego, but it’s probably my favorite album as a whole. Start to finish it’s an immense journey. And “Don’t Be Afraid”, man, all I can say is epic of the highest order. It give me chills. That fog horn noise puts me in mind of Wendy Carlos’ opening piece at the beginning of ‘The Shining’. Some existential call from the other side.

    Damn. Now I need to listen to ‘Heads On Fire’.

    1. Cheers Mr H! I think I’m with you on the favourite White Hills LP bit, although ‘Stolen Stars’ is their best record in my humble opinion.

      Make sure you listen to it with the lights off and we can meet up on the far side of the Dentron IV Nebula.

      1. Dentron IV Nebula it is. I’ll be there. Let the light of the great Quadrant Light Sphere shine upon you!

        ‘Stolen Stars’ is incredible. I still listen to that often. I know you’re not on that Facebook thing, so I’ll fill you in…Dave and Ego are recording. I’ve seen the photos of Ego rocking synths.

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