This year marks 15 since the beginning of Wovenhand. The band was founded by songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards as his prior outfit, 16 Horsepower was on the wain. Their self-titled debut (discussed here) arrived in 2002, followed by a partial remake, Blush Music in 2003 and the sophomore outing, Consider the Birds, in 2004. A decade ago, Wovenhand released Mosaic, their third album, and though one could still hear some flashes of 16 Horsepower‘s alternative Americana banjo in songs like “Swedish Purse,” it was more than established by then that the band had wider intentions.
Ever since, they’ve released full-lengths on the even years — Ten Stones in 2008, The Threshingfloor (discussed here) in 2010, The Laughing Stalk (review here) in 2012, and Refractory Obdurate (review here) in 2014 — regularly checking in on a progression of sound that has seen them become much more band than project, delving into a heavier, deeper-toned style still defined in large part by Edwards‘ voice and approach to songcraft, but nonetheless more outwardly weighted.
That was especially true of Refractory Obdurate, and in some ways it applies to the eighth long-player, Star Treatment (on Sargent House in the US and Glitterhouse in the EU), as well, though as Wovenhand once grew less and less beholden to neofolk, it now grows less beholden to ideas of what it means to be heavy. Wovenhand‘s work has always been atmospheric, but in listening to the spacious drone experimentation of second track “Swaying Reed” after the full-sprint leadoff “Come Brave,” what they make most readily clear is a focus on breadth rather than intensity, the idea that the process has grown more open over time, not more closed.
Edwards, on guitar and vocals, is joined in Wovenhand by guitarist Chuck French, bassist Neil Keener, percussionist Ordy Garrison and keyboardist Matthew Smith, and like its predecessor, Star Treatment was recorded and mixed by Sanford Parker, so there’s sonic continuity to be found between the two for sure, but the band has never ceased moving forward in one if not multiple directions, and that’s the case in these 11 tracks/54 minutes as well, the opening salvo signaling precisely that kind of multifaceted growth.
With the hard-snare punctuation of “Come Brave” and the post-Swans goth-lysergic pulse of “Swaying Reed” — it does sway — “The Hired Hand” could just about go anywhere, but it’s probably closer to the opener in its emergent shuffle, though it provides the first of several opportunities throughout Star Treatment for Smith‘s keyboards to stand out. Just after the chorus, marked out by the line “give up your dead,” there’s a push of keyboard at the fore the mix that carries into the next verse, and while Wovenhand have had any number of piano, organ, and other key-based instruments in their often complex arrangements throughout the years, rarely have they let them sound so brazenly synthesized.
It adds a psychedelic touch momentarily to “The Hired Hand” and will crop up again soon enough in “Crook and Flail” after “Crystal Palace,” with which it seems paired in part by the memorable hooks around which they both seem to work, “Crystal Palace”‘s more straightforward à la “Come Brave” or “The Hired Hand,” and “Crook and Flail” playing off minor key Eastern spaciousness, still distinctly American in its rhythm, Garrison once more making an impression on drums and a variety of other percussive instruments as he has over the last several records.
What would seem to be the end of side A comes with the quieter start of “The Quiver,” a sort of calming lull that launches with the last of its four minutes into bombast outdoing anything Star Treatment has yet had on offer in its wash of noise and chaotic-feeling surge, Edwards seeming to be at the center of this storm, making obscure proclamations.
Still, the moodier turn is important because it is a major factor in how the second half of Star Treatment plays out, beginning with the near-eight-minute “All Your Waves,” the longest track included by a decent margin, which does not explode deep in its run, but holds to its melancholy poetry and keeps a sense of movement with a far-back but consistent percussion line, shaker or maybe tambourine or could even be a hi-hat, but its enough to hold together its not-sparse-but-wide-open surroundings, and just before six minutes in a heavier distorted guitar line takes hold and it seems like “All Your Waves” might burst forward like “The Quiver” before it, but instead, the guitar simply holds its place and becomes a drone-style ending, swirling forward just as it rounds out into the start of “Golden Blossom,” with a signature blend of acoustic and bright-toned electric guitar.
Keys return, but are more subtle behind the guitar and bass and while Garrison will add cymbal punctuation more for the final chorus, Wovenhand avoid the trap of falling into a build or even teasing one. The vocal melody leads the way through a love song lyric, and for a moment, a portion the severity of songs like “The Quiver” and “Swaying Reed” or “The Hired Hand” is let go. “Go Ye Light” brings some of it back, if only in the more distinct drumming, but is ultimately more about ambience than push, a wisp of lead guitar standing out toward the midpoint that will return again behind the chorus at the end to engaging effect, but it’s “Five by Five” that further revives the impact of Star Treatment‘s early going as it makes its way toward the closer.
Forward distortion and drums are tied to a subdued start by a sparse piano figure before feedback fades into the start of “Low Twelve,” which as the finale would seem to speak directly to the album’s star-minded theme, cosmic in its sensibility and perspective but still held to the earth — repetitions of “heavenly bodies” make for a clever lyrical play even in light of Edwards‘ well-documented and oft-represented Christian faith. This interplay of land and ether would seem to be the central duality at work across the album as a whole.
Likewise, they end neither with bang nor whimper, but on steady ground, and the lasting effect of Star Treatment is even more about the breadth in the music than its thrust, which is a marked departure from Refractory Obdurate and a potential sign of things to come for Wovenhand as a whole. I wouldn’t actually speculate in that regard — because one just never knows — but it has happened that what started out as moments of flourish later became foundations for Edwards‘ songwriting.
The only real safe bet is continued, progressive creativity. Edwards has been called everything from a shaman to the second coming of Johnny Cash via Nick Cave. I’m not sure if to-date he’s sounded less like those things or more like himself than he does in these songs, but even in that, Star Treatment feels like a step in a much larger, ongoing process.