BARK PSYCHOSIS: HEX (1994)
1) The Loom; 2) A Street Scene; 3) Absent Friend; 4) Big Shot; 5) Eyes & Smiles; 6) Fingerspit; 7) Pendulum Man.
Even if I hated this record and this band, it would still be worth reviewing for two things alone. First, Bark Psychosis were originally formed in 1986 as — get this — a Napalm Death cover band. Second, eight years later, when their full-length debut finally came out, their music was dubbed «post-rock» in Mojo magazine, and this is where the term, now much more commonly associated with better known acts such as GY!BE and Sigur Rós, allegedly had its true beginnings. To go from «grindcore» to «post-rock» in less than a decade, and not for any sort of commercial or fashionist decision, but simply obeying the tug of one's heart — well, this is definitely something that merits respect.
The band itself was largely the brainchild of Graham Sutton, a smart and sensitive kid from Hackney, and Hex was far from his first offering to the world — before that, the band had produced several singles and EPs, including the 21-minute long track ʽScumʼ, which gained appraisal in 1992: this really was their first attempt at a musical «post-rock manifesto» of sorts, and the ideas invested in that track found further development in Hex, a collection of lengthy, meandering, and sometimes almost purringly soft... songs? jams? textures? soundscapes? whatever. «Post-rock» was originally defined as «non-rock music played using rock instrumentation», but that is a vague definition — and although, in retrospect, the roots of «post-rock» are usually seen in the classic albums of Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis really sound nothing like Mark Hollis and the gang. They sound closer to Hollis and the gang than to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, that is for sure. But not close enough.
The big reason why an album like Hex is revered in certain critical circles, yet has never managed to become as popular as those Talk Talk records, is most probably because it is unassuming. Listening to Spirit Of Eden, you get a very clear sense of being involved in something grand, like the early stages of some terraforming process — the compositions are wholesome, slowly unveiling before your eyes and aspiring to tremendous seriousness (you could argue whether or not they actually get where they're going, but Mark Hollis' stature as a musical prophet remains undiminished by these arguments). Sutton, on the other hand, has no such aspirations: his music is almost always subdued, its ambience is never betrayed by crescendos or climaxes, and if the listener needs to be shaken up a little, well, the harshest that Hex can get is by means of some crunchy jolt from a distorted jazzy bassline — quite a long distance, isn't it, from your everyday Napalm Death standards?
In all, the musical genre that Hex comes closest to, outside of «rock», is arguably lounge jazz — with slight touches of R&B, chamber/dream pop, and New Age. It is one of those works-better-at-night records that requires getting into a certain lazy, hazy, dreamy mood which can carry you away; anything other than that and most of the compositions will look extremely boring, since, you know, this is not Talk Talk; this is a record that focuses on abstract beauty without getting too emotional or overworked about it. «Musical hooks» do not exist in this place — all hints at sharpness of sound have been meticulously eradicated, replaced by smoothness and fluidity that work at a strictly subconscious level, provided they work at all. And yet, at the same time this is not just a collection of trance-inducing grooves: as a rule, these are multi-part, dynamic compositions that know how to shift melodies and tempos. For instance, ʽThe Loomʼ begins as a romantic piano-and-strings ballad, then adds polyrhythmic percussion, then adds ambient keyboards, then drops pianos and strings, then adds a noisy coda that may or may not resemble the actual sounds produced by a power loom. ʽA Street Sceneʼ begins like a soft jazz piece with energetic percussion, adult contemporary synths in the background and noisy feedback in the middle ground — but it ends almost without any percussion at all (just a few cymbal clicks), as a minimalistic guitar piece with some keyboard ruffles around the edges. And this is totally typical of the rest of the album as well.
I must confess to a primitive sort of reaction: everything on Hex sounds «tepid» to me, too much going on for me to treat it as a quintessential ambient record, but way too little to get me genuinely involved and moved. Had Sutton and his backing band displayed just a tad less creativity, we could all just agree that they tried to make a generic smooth jazz album with guitars and electronics, and the results were predictably yawn-inducing. But the internal dynamics of the compositions is so utterly undeniable that I almost feel bad for not «feeling» this all the way through; the concept of the album, in fact, sounds much more exciting on paper than when you listen to this stuff in real time. In all, this is tons more creative than Sade, but if you were to make a desert island choice, you'd have to go along with ʽSmooth Operatorʼ, because Hex is just no soundtrack for survival on a desert island.
Nevertheless, judging from a sheerly intellectual side, the record is an undeniable thumbs up all the way through — in fact, if you have not developed sufficient respect for it by the third listen, I would advise coming back to it over and over again, just because it is so full of nuances. I mean, who knows, it might actually be one of the biggest musical riddles of the decade — in terms of how many different genres it borrows from and in terms of the final meaning of this synthesis. It is rock, it is prog, it is jazz, it is ambient, and it is also none of these, so what is it? And what exactly could, or should, it trigger in our minds once the spell finally begins to work? Count me genuinely befuddled, and I usually give out thumbs up when I'm befuddled, just to be on the safe side. Unless I prefer to abstain, but that usually happens with records that defy the notion of melody, whereas Bark Psychosis have the highest respect for melody.