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Forged from iron

Hessian's debut is heavy in a weird way
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  September 19, 2014

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One of the most interesting elements of Hessian, a metal band who’ve been playing in some shape or form close to five years, is their heaviness. By now, technological advancements have spurred the form beyond comprehension. Heavy groups can mechanically engineer a song such that its blastbeats outgallop the most militant limbs of its drumming corps. In the other direction, outfits like SUNN 0))) and Earth have demonstrated that the heaviest sounds available to man are those which barely move at all. Other groups still attempt to harness the dogs of metal with other means, like endurance, “brutal” themes and content, or mismanagement of the compression function. But Portland’s Hessian needs not these devices.

Instead, to borrow a phrase from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Hessian “traverse the fantasy.” In strictly sonic terms, they’re not the heaviest band ever—contra the methods above, Hessian surround the concept of heaviness on an entirely different plane, sublimating real-life themes into full-on, dare-me-to-laugh fantasy metal, not at all unlike what started the genre decades ago.

And they do it pretty brilliantly. Hessian’s party-metal vibe can’t obscure the band’s technical capacity, and their rhythmic dynamics don’t ever slow their incessant, quaking gallop. Opener “Eyebite” settles into something that wouldn’t sounds too out of place on Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. The candlelit balladeering of the first two minutes of “The Alchemist’s Blessing” spins effortlessly into twin shards of guitar lightning before its Sabbath-like paranoia threatens to devour itself. And the sectional riff from “Iron Baby”—during which co-frontperson Angus MacFarland sings “Iron Baby / you’re the heaviest I know”—that part’s almost comically loose and groovy.

Almost none of this would work if it were clear where their tongues were, but Bachelor of Black Arts keeps them mercifully obscured. Is MacFarland’s cackling opening verse—“by fire, by sulphur, quicksilver, and lead”—on co-bandleader Salli Wason’s romp “Old, Wild, & Free” for real? Yes, quite. As is the cheekily titled song itself, which lampoons a hoary rock ‘n’ roll trope while sneakily making off with its meaning. And without a deep familiarity of the absurdities behind “Cloven Lady”—sung as a duet between the titular subject and, of course, a sorcerer—you might not hear it as one of the more progressive love songs the genre can handle.

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HIGH ATOP THE THRONE Hessian’s throwback fantasy-metal invokes the last 40 years of the form.

Humor and occult lyrical fixations aside, most fans have found the band through their unironic capacity to rock the fuck out. And if Bachelor of Black Arts did not do that in spades, that degree would be like the rest of academia’s: virtually worthless. “Witch Road” and “Cloven Lady” are crowdpleasing hellrides; “Iron Baby” could be a boogie-woogie deep cut on any classic mix; and the six-minute “Homonculator” slays in effortless NWOBHM fashion, its po-faced lyrics seemingly detailing the accounts of a manchild in the promised land—“I am a lonely man without a kinsman or a friend”—before descending into ribald narrative exercises that may or may not prove the point (memorably: “Suspended in the Aqua Mortis / Nurtured by the cockatrice / who crows atop the old dung heap and hisses at my hand.”).

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