(Hold on tight as Andy Synn takes us for a ride with the new album from Hundred Headless Horsemen)
Finnish quartet Hundred Headless Horsemen aren’t the easiest band to pin down.
Mostly this is because the group resolutely refuse to adhere to the normal conventions (or restrictions) of songwriting or genre, going so far as to describe their uniquely unorthodox sound as “Psychedelic Death Metal”, a term which, while certainly intriguing, practically raises more questions than it answers.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a significant strain of Death Metal in the band’s DNA – though careful analysis will undoubtedly show that it’s more closely related to the Morbus Chron/Sweven offshoot than it is anything from the Floridian swamps or the Stockholm graveyards – but, whether due to natural selection or intelligent design, the sound they produce isn’t so easily classified.
Perhaps an even better comparison – or, at least, the best one I can come up with – would be to think of HHH as the Death Metal equivalent of their more “blackened” countrymen in Oranssi Pazuzu, a band with whom they not only share a love of sludgy grooves and psychotropic sounds, but also an almost pathological aversion to playing by the rules.
This latter fact should be immediately apparent – if, that is, you weren’t already aware of it from the band’s previous self-titled and Hexagon EPs – by the way in which extravagant eleven minute (and forty seven seconds) opener “The Road” slowly unfurls in a hauntingly ambient, distinctly un-deathly style, all tolling tones, hazy atmospherics, and luminous, lilting melodies.
Of course, it’s not that long before HHH start to crank up the distortion, but even here there’s a psychedelic sludginess to the whole affair that aligns the band more with groups like Ufomammut, Om, and the aforementioned Oranssi Pazuzu, than anything on the Death Metal spectrum.
But, just as you’re starting to think “wait a second, I’ve been hoodwinked”, the Finnish foursome suddenly up the ante with a sleight-of-hand reveal that – surprise – they’ve actually been a Death Metal band all along (albeit a very unusual one), laying down a series of chunky, choppy riffs and rapid-fire percussive patterns reminiscent of similarly unorthodox death-dealers like Execration, Venenum, and Chapel of Disease.
That’s a lot of names to drop in just a few short paragraphs, I know (and I’ve only covered about a third of the track so far!) and sets a pretty high bar for the band to reach, but I promise you that I chose each one of them for a reason, and that the music itself more than justifies their inclusion.
And while it might seem that any album, let alone a single song, might be spreading itself a little too thin by trying to incorporate all these different elements and influences, this diversity of sound actually turns out to be one of the band’s greatest strengths, as the almost stream-of-consciousness songwriting style which underpins “The Road” gives the track an incredibly organic – and, yes, subtly psychedelic – sense of form and flow which enables it to move from trippy, trance-inducing rhythms to raging, riff-fuelled freak-outs to absorbing, zen-like ambience in sinuously seamless style.
Over the course of the next thirty-ish minutes Hundred Headless Horsemen then go on to prove that this initial success wasn’t just a fluke, dropping some seriously bad-acid vibes during the sinister, spine-tingling strains of “No Longer Human” (replete with some creepy, yet curiously catchy, clean vocals) and then upping the dose even further during the slither ‘n’ stomp of “Breath of Death” which, I have to imagine, is what Mikael Akerfeldt wishes modern Opeth sounded like.
The second half of the album only reinforces the idea that whatever these guys are on it must be something pretty damn special, not to mention pretty damn potent too, as the brooding, bass-heavy swagger of “Echoes” gives way to the psychoactive Prog-Sludge stomp along of “Spleen”, both tracks cutting their driving, proto-death riffs with microdoses of mind-opening melody and lacing every hit with layers of addictive atmosphere.
It all culminates with the dreamlike and doom-laden strains of “Cataclysm”, which marries infectious Post-Punk melodies and intriguingly off-kilter rhythms to a backbone of intricately woven Prog-Death guitar work, thus ending the record with one final display of dynamic cross-genre pollinisation which practically guarantees that you’re going to be jonesing for another fix of the band’s signature sonic stimulant again very, very soon.
I guess that’s why the band’s first two EPs are available for free download. The first couple of tastes are just to get you hooked, but the really good stuff here… that’s going to cost you.