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White Hills, "Stop Mute Defeat"

cover imageWhite Hills has always been kind of a frustrating band for me, but Dave W's single-minded devotion to psych-rock excess occasionally hits some flashes of sustained greatness, so I keep coming back anyway. If anything, he can be relied upon to consistently deliver one or two prime doses of unhinged psych-guitar squall every album...until now, that is.  In a somewhat startling turn of events, Dave and bassist Ego Sensation have returned from their brief hiatus with quite a radical reinvention of their sound.  I am not sure if White Hills' new aesthetic is categorically better than the old one, as Dave’s messy and indulgent guitar heroics have a definite appeal, but this latest batch of songs is definitely tighter, catchier, and more focused than their past work.  Equally significant: this album abandons all traces of the duo’s Hawkwind fixation in favor of a trip into my nostalgic comfort zone of ‘90s Wax Trax!-style industrial.  To their credit, White Hills make some welcome improvements to that formula, embellishing the expected drum machines and cut-up samples with some wonderfully fluid and muscular bass lines and a more simmering, understated touch to their lingering psychedelic side.

Thrill Jockey

The album's opening salvo "Overlord" is quite an amazing statement of intent, embodying absolutely everything that is great about Stop Mute Defeat: a slow and heavy drum machine groove, a strong bass line, understated guitars, and a cool car alarm-esque hook of looping modular synth bloops.  Also, it manages to stretch out for over seven minutes while still feeling concise and punchy.  Unfortunately, it falls a bit short on the lyrical front, as Dave W's snarled anti-authoritarian vocals seem like something Al Jourgenson might come up with if someone shook him awake and shoved a microphone in his face ("subliminal seduction…A SERENADE WITH A GRENADE").  There is also a breakdown that sounds like a poor man’s version of Ministry's "Thieves," as Dave W repeatedly howls "DEFY THE LAW" in a call-and-response duet with revolutionary-sounding newsclip samples.  I would like to think that the sledgehammer politics, unsophisticated lyrics, and retro-style approach to sample use (triggering laughter after he sings the phrase "laugh at your expense") is a deliberate homage to folks like KMFDM, but the Wax Trax! milieu is conspicuously absent from the many influences name-checked in the press release ('80s Mudd Club scene, Burroughs, Gristle, Cab Voltaire).  Thankfully, the music is cool enough to transcend the lyrical missteps, but "Overlord" still feels like a song with a targeted imaginary audience of angst-filled early ‘90s teens rather than, say, a middle-aged music critic in 2017.  It is still quite an enjoyable piece, but it veers into guilty nostalgic fun when it could have easily been the best song on the entire album if the intensity had been dialed down just a little bit.  That said, any contemporary rock band attempting to make a career of catering to my demographic would be in for a rough ride indeed.

Remarkably, however, White Hills get most of their awkward moments out of the way early and the rest of the album is consistently strong with no further caveats.  In fact, it is absolutely riddled with great ideas, which makes me think that this direction is the one White Hills should have been going all along.  Aside from the great drum machine programming and sinuous bass lines, Stop Mute Defeat is simply a much more streamlined, hooky, and playful album than I would have ever expected from the duo.  The finest moment is probably the minimalist single "Importance 101," which is essentially just a very cool shifting bass line; a repeating and largely incomprehensible vocal snippet from Ego; and some clattering, garbage can lid-style drum fills.  For the most part, Dave and Ego seem to consistently be at their best when they are working with the most pared down materials, as they truly just need a strong groove and some peripheral hallucinatory chaos to be compelling.  The rolling and propulsive "Sugar Hill" is similarly excellent, seamlessly adding a bit more songcraft into the equation by keeping the vocals chant-like and low in the mix.  In fact, I have no issues with Dave W's singing at all when he stays laid-back and avoids shouting about the government.  Or when he simply refrains from being an angry rock guy altogether, as he does on the manic electro-pop of the title track or when he is digitized into robotic unrecognizability in the heavy industrial throb of "If…1…2."  Admittedly, Dave returns to his "messianic ‘90s industrial revolutionary" mode once more with the metal-damaged "Attack Mode," but I like the weird tribal tom-tom drumbeat enough to forgive him.

Minor grievances aside, Stop Mute Defeat is easily the most consistently strong White Hills album that I have yet encountered, as every one of these eight songs could easily be a single.  I suppose it is bizarre that the best White Hills album is the one that sounds the least like White Hills, but Dave and Ego's aesthetic has always been an unrepentant pastiche of recognizable influences rather than an entirely original vision, so the incorporation of some fresh inspirations is completely in character.  In fact, I would say it was even a bit overdue, as White Hills had already taken extended hard/psych rock firestorms as far as they could go long ago and their most compelling moments were always those that veered away from that template.  It is also worth noting that the variety here is quite welcome, as is the strong emphasis on rhythm, melody, and tighter songcraft.  Part of the credit for that transformation probably goes to the increased role of returning producer Martin Bisi, but Stop Mute Defeat is essentially just a more focused and stripped-down distillation of elements that were present all along.  Naturally, some longtime fans will be dismayed that there are no wild space rock freak-outs to be found here, but White Hills have already recorded plenty of those and those recordings have not disappeared, so I suspect most will share my delight in hearing such a well-executed leap into new terrain.