Some part of me feels like I just need to finally have it out with these songs. Late last fall, when Tucson, Arizona’s Young Hunter issued the three tracks “Welcome to Nothing,” “Trail of Tears” and “Dreamer” online as the Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain EP, there was no doubt in my mind that it was one of 2013’s best short releases. The 18-minute collection has become a staple in the months since its release, perfect for killing late night silences, and in Ohioan‘s Tetralogía Lavaplatos, it has a match. The two recordings share personnel, a spirit born of the land from whence they come and some lyrical themes — albeit manifested differently in texture — so it’s only fitting they’d wind up together, Ohioan‘s four songs, “Madrugada Sonora,” “Fat Children (with Privilege),” “Herida de Llorona” and “Dogshit in Plastic Bags” showcasing American drone-folk of varied intent and poetic critique to complement Young Hunter‘s emotionally-resonant spiritual weight.
The tape arrives in a hand-made package, the cover on front, a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on back that reads, “People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.” A piece of black tape seals the cardboard, which unfolds to various stamped symbols and the tape itself, black with gold paint, accompanied by a download card and folded sheet with lyrics for Young Hunter‘s songs and the two of Ohioan‘s that have them. The sides on the outside have “YH & OH” stamped on them, and it’s a fitting answer to Young Hunter‘s 2012 CD outing, Stone Tools, which showed similar depth in presentation. For a format as maligned as tapes often are, this split (limited to 200 copies) is one more argument for the validity of them as an outlet for creativity. Still, once one puts the thing on and presses play, there’s very little else that matters.
Droning at the start, “Welcome to Nothing” bursts Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain to life with terrifying lucidity. Young Hunter frontman Benjamin Blake intones at the start, “Abandon those around you/Do not be afraid…” beginning a verse that plays out a subtle build over the song’s first minute-plus before the drums and full-breadth guitars kick in. Even on tape, the sound is huge, the pulse vital, the mood darkened by the continued drone that becomes the out-front riff of the verse. A chaos swirl is given push by pounding drums — both Adan Martinez-Kee and Matthew Baquet are credited on the three tracks, I don’t know who plays where — and “Welcome to Nothing” is at a running pace the tension and drama of which is contrasted by the subdued delivery of the vocals. Crashing drums and a lead line from the guitar provide a sort of instrumental chorus while the hook resides in the refrain of the verse, the line “Welcome back to the void,” serving as an anchor up to the cacophony that rounds the track out and cuts echoing into the beginning of “Trail of Tears,” a single, spacious guitar introducing the line that will be the song’s central figure as a series of drum hits slam home punctuation.
I do not mind saying that there are several “holy shit” chill-up-the-spine moments on the Young Hunter side of the tape, and the unfolding of “Trail of Tears” is one of them. The band reels back and then lets loose a staggering nighttime landscape, guitars doing coyote howls to set up the first verse, Julia DeConcini joining Blake atop the complex wash from guitarist Mike Barnett, guitarist/keyboardist Samuel Christopher (who, like DeConcini, also appears with Ohioan) and bassist Michael Huerta, all of them and the drums coming together to create this rumbling, presence that both consumes and grooves, “hey-heys” and “ooh-oohs” showing up for an understated chorus before the keys and guitars duke it out in multilayered solos. The stomp from the beginning of the track reemerges in the second half as the foundation for a build the culmination of which is the tape’s most singularly devastating moment of tonal largesse and impact — Neurosis worthy — the drums pulling back to half-time at just the right moment and immediately afterwards starting in on the beat that is the foundation for “Dreamer,” the shortest of Young Hunter‘s three inclusions on the split.
By this time, Young Hunter have crafted a dense atmosphere, dark but not cultish or silly and earning its heaviness through control and presence. “Dreamer” essentially breaks into three parts. Guitars match the drum beat step for step and develop from there in a tense push that opens wide for an airy verse before trading back. The major change comes with the line “See the bones left where the spirit wakes up,” which marks the beginning of a build that will lead to the split’s most driving payoff, Blake coming to the fore over the maddening drive to ask, “When you gonna wake up?/Are you gonna wake up when you die?” ending the apex in screams not black metal-influenced like some of those on Stone Tools, but rawer, more primal. And just to show that even as they’ve gone so far out, Young Hunter aren’t so out of control as to snap back with a hit of the snare, return to the original guitar rhythm/drum beat and cap “Dreamer” with a bookend to underscore the accomplishment of its songwriting. The several minutes of silence that follow offer well-appreciated opportunity for recovery.
Ohioan‘s take comes from another angle. Both “Madrugada Sonora” and “Herida de Llorona” are instrumental, the first launching the dark-folk/Americana outfit’s side with a bed of drone. More even than Young Hunter, whose songs prove distinct almost in spite of themselves, Ohioan‘s material gives the impression of being meant to be experienced as a whole. Extended waves of guitar notes make for a minimalist beginning, layers weaving in throughout “Madrugada Sonora” in a subtle and cautious build that comprises the first five minutes of Tetralogía Lavaplatos — something I’ll readily admit I only know because of the digital version of the EP. On the tape, it blends together seamlessly, and even when more distinct feedback arrives, it’s hard to know exactly where “Fat Children (with Privilege)” starts, though there’s little obscurity once the vocals begin. O Ryne Warner (who also appears with Young Hunter and has contributed bass to Ghost to Falco, from Portland, Oregon) is credited with co-engineering and mixing, as well as “other shit” in the studio, and listed first among a host of others as “faculty” — all info online; no personnel info with the tape liner — so I’m relatively comfortable presuming its his voice recounting the tale in the lyrics of “Fat Children (with Privilege),” but don’t quote me.
He’s joined throughout Ohioan‘s four songs by the aforementioned Christopher and DeConcini, as well as Connor Gallaher, Andrew Collberg, Jeff Lownsbury, Jeff Grubic, Sasha, Geoff Saba, Ryen Egglestein, Jim Colby, Isadora Moreno-Frisby, Alexandra Cer and Benjamin Ford-Sala (who also did the art for foldout), though who’s doing what is a mystery and to delve into speculation seems like overkill. The lyrics of “Fat Children (with Privilege)” are less about the titular youths themselves than the cultural excesses of wealth and hubris they’re meant to represent. It’s Howl meets service-industry blues:
“I cleansed every dish
That the rich tooth missed
I fed their fat children
With the skin
Of my friends,”
And isn’t long in going on to talk about a “life, ever spent, paying rent” — something Young Hunter touched on as well in “Dreamer” with “Another life spent chasing paychecks” — the disillusion with adult consumerist life indicative both of creative restlessness and the core of resentment that bleeds through the remainder of the track. Where Young Hunter crashed and slammed, Ohioan seethe, though in Angels of Light-esque form, there’s a swell of volume and lurching heft as well near the end of the track, topped by strings (real or inorganic) and multiple vocals as it is. The song breaks back down to its root frustration and silence precedes the instrumental “Herida de Llorona,” a twanging, guitar of country’ed sweetness offering some contrast to the gnashing teeth in the prior cut’s finish.
That atmosphere of sentiment for the impossible — something other countries rightly shake their heads at but is nonetheless a core element of American culture — continues into “Dogshit in Plastic Bags,” though neither the title of the song nor its lyrics would draw one to that notion. If it was Ohioan‘s intent to toy with contrast, they did a more than able job of it, the words barely spoken in sweet, patient melody as the lines, “Our legacy will be dicks drawn on bathroom walls, empty windows and dogshit in plastic bags outside the mall” provide the capstone for what would otherwise superficially appear as a dreamy, wistful country exploration, complete with pedal steel and slow, soft drumming. They do not linger after those lines are delivered with cadence that seems to playfully distract from the message itself, and the split concludes in a fashion rather unassuming considering the scope of what’s played out over the course of the prior 40-or-so minutes.
Last I heard, Blake had moved to Portland, Oregon, so if there’s a future for Young Hunter or what that might look like, I don’t know. Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain remains a substantial contribution either way. Ohioan, nebulous as they are, have several other releases to dig into available via their Bandcamp — 2011’s Balls Deep in Babylon catches the eye — in some alliance with Infinite Front, which seems to be an artist collective as much as a record label. Fair enough. What remains true for both acts is the essential nature of the work they’ve given here. I’m not sure if a tape does it justice. I’m not sure what format would — some form of audio tattoo? But a tape makes sense coming from two groups who’ve obviously stood under a huge desert sky and realized how little it matters one way or another, so a tape it is. Recommended.