Bark Psychosis - Hex
n Second Thought replaces the classic reviews section with a more focused look at albums from the past. Each week we’ll be taking a look at an album over two years old which has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded or misunderstood in some fundamental way. With it, we aim to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
In the wake of the Britpop and trip-hop booms in England of the early 90s, Bark Psychosis’ Hex fell through the cracks for many years, available only to a select few on disc. Stylus is proud to let AMG contributor Ned Raggett say “on second thought” to this underheard gem.
There are some albums I’m quite annoyed with myself for not listening to more often, and Hex by Bark Psychosis is one of them. Shame on me, indeed.
Not that anyone needs to agree with me on that, and of course sometimes the problem with cult classics is that you get sick of hearing about them from other sources when you’ve been getting along with (and getting off on, etc.) things that aren’t culty at all, that are instant live-wire hits that make ya feel good to be alive and so forth. So theoretically talking about a ten-year-old album that wasn’t going to bust down the charts upon its initial release in the UK and which did get released over here at least, but again was not troubling the about-to-give-a-spike-in-sales-to-Nirvana-due-to-death record purchasing masses any, seems kind of odd. (Purchasing—I can say that and mean that, my god! My copy of the American release of Hex has no website listed! Music on the Net meant IUMA and mp3s had only just been figured out as a file standard! Jesus H., this is what really gives me a sense of the passage of time, screw whatever grey hairs I have now.)
I don’t listen to Hex as much as I should, as indicated. I listen to the sorta spiritual cousin Laughing Stock by Talk Talk more because, well, it’s Laughing Stock by Talk Talk. And I’m quite content to let that be a shorthand of explanation for revelation because I’m a crab, but then again, this essay isn’t about that, or about DI Go Pop, Houdini, Euphoria, Firmament or anything else that was somehow shoehorned, squashed or otherwise stuffed into a genre labeled ‘post-rock’ that actually almost had some justification for the term, if you squinted. Rock that used the instrumentation to substitute recreation for skew-whiff approaches to sound—and as with all good scenes, it was fake and made no sense beyond a chronological happenstance, and was more reliant on the past than anyone dared to admit, and had far too glib a name.
But what makes Hex and its many counterparts succeed still is that the alternate timeline of history recorded wasn’t one that assumed a basic x = x = x standard, wasn’t the tiresome ‘back to the roots MAN’ plague that crops up constantly when it comes to ‘rock’ however described, mocked and worked around. The argument was one that annoys and frustrates still to this day, as well it should—for all the appreciations of the widely-known, for the deserved love for that which surprises and knocks one sideways, that fuses familiar past flashpoints into something new that everyone one, that which never gets famous can still have meaning and value. One need not sacrifice one side or the other—everything is in play, all is allowed, take what one desires. The indie and pop stereotype plagues that pointlessly troubled music then pointlessly trouble it now, and if I were to follow this up with listening to a modern riddim compilation nobody should care, and if I were to say that I liked Hex more in the end nobody should care either.
So what is Hex that it can be a McGuffin for all my hoohah above? Easy—something indistinct. If pop could be said to have a true specific sound, it is one of tightly wound impact, whether huge and triumphant or a power-ballad mutation or however one chooses to conceive it. Hex suggested like few albums of the time that calm beauty collapsed in on itself can have a function, that Miles Davis at his most restrained and refined after the electric explosion is not something to just nod sagely at, that the echoing cry of cascading guitar and piano on “Absent Friend” can say more than a prom theme no matter how perfectly heightened and ridiculous the emotions are right then and there.
And yet there is tightly wound impact on this album, it’s not a collection of improvisations, it’s assembled and reworked and sequenced and put together—again like Laughing Stock, a sleight of hand, a careful balance that’s not necessarily apparent and not meant to be seen, stitches carefully hidden, the man remaining behind the curtain. So what’s left is what is, serenity and waft and rise and shade, Graham Sutton’s voice-as-instrument seemingly but cliché on first blush but in fact as essential as Black Francis’s rampaged howl or perhaps more accurately Bernard Sumner’s non-singing singing, the reflective hook amidst beauty, the without-which anchor this would still be beautiful and yet not quite there.
1994 was the year of ‘trip-hop’ as conceived and sold, at least initially, Portishead and the second Massive Attack album and the initial rumblings of Tricky in the distance, and yet all the elegance and crushed hearts and bass-focused threat and drive of what was supposedly limited only to Bristol spy-movie obsessives was no less absent here. John Barry drowned in murky water on “Big Shot,” perhaps, snowflakes slowly falling on an abandoned street as Sutton yearns for escape and release in the most deliberate and calm way possible.
Oh sure, there was slocore and all that, and some of it was great—Low’s first album, those early performances, some of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere still—and some of it was slow and boring and then it wore old summer camp T-shirts and got whinily anguished and became emo. (Okay, maybe not, but let’s pretend.) But does “The Loom” really deserve to be called slocore or whatever the hell? Sure it’s calm and all but heck, this is looming as in MBV’s “Loomer,” a sense of awesome forces at work but maintaining radio silence. Does “Fingerspit” deserve the tag because it starts out with almost nothing and only suddenly rises to a quick blend of guitar and singing and piano that nearly but never heralds a full band crunch that would simply NOT HAVE WORKED here? Not as such, no, so instead the bass lurks low, the drums play around the edges of the mix. And why not indeed? Why be obvious?
I still don’t listen to Hex enough. But my god, whenever I do, the world turns into something else, something unexpected, something that still works.
By: Ned Raggett
Published on: 2004-07-27