There have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be any number of people touting the work of Finnish outfit Hexvessel in hyperbole of one sort or another. Between their accomplished songwriting, a crisply defined aesthetic and ethos, sonic individuality and evocative emotionality nodding at a plethora of obscure influences out of the pantheon of lost and worshiped classics — not to mention how well the Tampere-based band has recontextualized these elements into their own take — they’ve made an easy target for high-minded praise since their debut full-length, Dawnbearer, showed up in 2011 and its follow-up, No Holier Temple, landed in 2012, both through Svart. Fair enough. Different groups resonate on different levels, and Hexvessel push their resonance further via charismatic vocalist/guitarist Mat McNerney, who’s been a central presence all along but comes even more forward on When We are Death, which in addition to being Hexvessel‘s third LP is also their debut for Century Media.
With guitarist Simo Kuosmanen, bassist Niini Rossi, drummer Jukka Rämänen, percussionist/backing vocalist Marja Konttinen and keyboardist/violinist/trumpeter Kimmo Helén alongside McNerney, the six-piece explore depths of arrangement they had not previously dared to seek out, and the resulting 11 tracks/47 minutes of When We are Death present a bold stylistic shift for a group who had established a niche and an influence in touting environmentalist/naturalist psychedelic folk. When We are Death reaches outside those and most other confines, brazenly, and while I won’t decry the sweet progressive fuzz of “Sacred Marriage” from No Holier Temple or the effective sense of ritual Hexvessel brought to their songs previously, they pull off a multitude of stylistic shifts across songs like “Earth Over Us,” “Drugged up on the Universe,” “Hunter’s Prayer,” “Mirror Boy,” “Cosmic Truth” and so on, and range well beyond what I think even the most fervent of praise-heapers might have expected were their limitations.
It is no minor accomplishment. Between the organ-laced trad-psych bounce of opener “Transparent Eyeball” and the brooding, pun-happy accusations of closer “Shaman You,” When We are Death pushes through diverse material that, in less capable hands, would come across disjointed or incongruous. Hexvessel avoid this trap in part by executing the underlying theme — as the title hints — of death. 10 of the 11 tracks make some sort of direct reference to death, dying or being dead in the lyrics — only “Shaman You” is left out, and that has no shortage of betrayed sensibility — and whether it’s a tertiary line like “Please leave me here to extinguish and die” in “Teeth of the Mountain,” tossed off in a verse en route to the chorus or the hook of “When I’m Dead,” “I’ll remember you/I’ll remember you/When I am dead,” that serves as the catchiest of the album delivered with goth-psych aplomb following verses on which a duly theatric McNerney channels Elvis via Peter Murphy, death is an ever-present spectre. You might say that’s the human condition, but it ties When We are Death together in a way that emphasizes the universality of the whole work rather than splitting it apart into some stylistic patchwork.
McNerney‘s performance is also central in this regard. No less amorphous vocally than the songs, he’s equally at home in the darkened space rock of “Drugged up on the Universe” (“Mainline a secret vein of the universe and you will find — death”) as he is on “Green Gold,” which paints a reincarnation scenario of the speaker in the lyrics returning as a tree and is arguably the closes Hexvessel come here to their past work, and that confidence is pivotal to how fluidly the band lead the way through their various changes, even unto the King Crimson-style chase late in “Mushroom Spirit Doors” — Rämänen‘s snare work should get special mention — and the atmospheric spaciousness cast in “Cosmic Truth.” Hooks are deceptively memorable throughout with the exception perhaps of “When I’m Dead,” which is consciously all about its chorus, and between the shifts in keys across “Earth Over Us” and the soft tones in the second half of “Teeth of the Mountain” behind an electrified guitar solo and the leaps that When We are Death makes as it moves from “Mushroom Spirit Doors” — as tripped out as the title suggests, and a structural triumph — to the percussive “Hunter’s Prayer” and into “Shaman You” to finish out, Hexvessel‘s defining statement comes through in exactly how unwilling the album is to be defined beyond its core theme.
Among the good many things that When We are Death is, it is not simple. I’m by no means a touchstone for perception, but I was three times through before Hexvessel‘s apparent intent started to sink in, and it may take a while for the material to grab hold of the listener’s consciousness. This ultimately becomes a strength, since while the group’s songs are accessible, they still provide enough of a challenge to make it worth coming back for repeat visits, and that balance is rare — a release that still maintains a pop sensibility while refusing to dumb itself down to broaden appeal. There may be those who feel loyal to the sound Hexvessel established on Dawnbearer and No Holier Temple and the subsequent 2013 EP, Iron Marsh, who likewise need time to adjust to the diverse methods presented here, but the answer to that is the obvious craft that has gone into making these songs, the rich details that “Cosmic Truth,” “Green Gold” and “Hunter’s Prayer” offer and the improbably fluidity that Hexvessel build as the album moves through its course, excitingly careening but masterfully directed. It’s not intended to be simple, or humble, or plain; it’s intended to be encompassing and vast, and it is precisely those things.