Wovenhand, Refractory Obdurate: Sit Down and Eat

Whatever genre tag one might want to saddle Wovenhand with, I’ve yet to come across one that doesn’t leave some integral facet of their sound uncovered. Like the cover art of their latest outing and first for Deathwish Inc. (their alliance with Glitterhouse Records continues outside North America), Refractory Obdurate, their aesthetic is a patchwork. Always in progress, it draws from world music influences, from folk, from indie (whatever that means), and increasingly over the last several albums, 2012’s The Laughing Stalk (review here) and 2010’s The Threshingfloor (semi-review here) particularly, from heavier-toned rock, but they are not a band to be pinned down to one modus or another, and that’s as true on Refractory Obdurate as it has been all along. Driven by the songwriting of guitarist, vocalist, founder and oft-perceived figurehead David Eugene Edwards (formerly of 16 Horsepower) and featuring guitarist Charles Edward French, bassist Neil Keener, percussionist Ordy Garrison and organist Jeff Linsenmaier, the 10 songs/43 minutes of Refractory Obdurate have some sonic carryover from The Laughing Stalk, but as ever for Wovenhand, there’s progression as well. They are immediately recognizable. There’s no one who sounds like Wovenhand both because of Edwards‘ vocal style and because of the fluidity of the band’s arrangements. All but Keener appeared on the last album, so there’s some consistency of approach in the bright, joyous rush of “Good Shepherd” or the brooding spaciousness of the later “Obdurate Obscura,” but more than last time, what stands out here is the feverishness of the builds and payoffs in the material’s structure. That is, to bring a song to an apex isn’t really anything new for the band, but in “Masonic Youth” (get it?), “The Refractory,” “Salome,” the bass-fueled “Field of Hedon,” and the penultimate “Hiss,” which provides the climax for Refractory Obdurate as a whole as well, the tension is more of a focal point than it’s ever been in Wovenhand‘s approach. At this point, they’ve also gotten heavy enough to allow for that.

I’ve said before that I have trouble thinking or speaking about Wovenhand in anything other than hyperbole. Refractory Obdurate provokes that response as well since Edwards and his companions emerge from it no less a singular sonic entity than they went in. They are unique, and as that’s an absolute term, Refractory Obdurate is bound to cause a strong reaction. As a fan, I looked forward to the release, and listening to it, was pleased to discover no dilution in the quality of songwriting, whether it’s more bombastic material like “Masonic Youth,” the culmination of which is punkish in its intensity, or “King David,” which holds firm to the acoustic strum around which its rumble builds, Edwards‘ vocals echoing in an impeccable mix. It is a long way sonically from Wovenhand’s 2002 self-titled debut, but traced over the course of their albums, which have been released on even years since with the Blush Music score arriving in 2003, Refractory Obdurate is a next logical installment in the development of their take. One wouldn’t expect them to repeat themselves, and they don’t, but neither is Refractory Obdurate turning the feel of The Laughing Stalk completely on its head. As a whole, its vibe reads darker because the art is darker and the songs are by and large heavier, but it’s a step, not a jump from one to the other, and their sound remains utterly distinct, opener “Corsicana Clip” hinting as the higher acoustics give way to lower-toned electric guitar in the chorus at some of the relative pummel to come. An essential component running a thread through all of Wovenhand‘s work is Edwards‘ faith, and his penchant for turning dogma into deeply personal portraits remains firm in “Good Shepherd,” “The Refractory,” “Salome,” “Field of Hedon,” and the other cuts included, coloring lyrical perspective even in moments without direct reference and making the overarching feel all the more individual. Many of the album’s loudest moments are also its most fervent testimonials, and emotional and spiritual weight play as much if not more of a role than anything coming from the guitar on “Hiss.”

Though, as it arrives prior to the ominous, moody finale of “El-Bow,” with its emerging electronic-sounding drums, sprawling open notes and other underlying percussion, “Hiss” is the heaviest-sounding song Wovenhand have yet crafted, and given some of what they’ve done before and its place as the second-to-last and culminating track on Refractory Obdurate, that’s immediately noteworthy. It has a genuine chug to the guitars — classic metal repurposed into another element in Wovenhand‘s arrangement; they use it as they otherwise might a Turkish lute — and churns toward a driving chorus that, again, is the payoff of all the other payoffs before it, the tension in its verse brought to bear as Garrision switches from tom runs to cymbal crash, Edwards atop all the while, seeming to ride it as much as direct what would sound chaotic were it not so skillfully made. Even following Wovenhand‘s ongoing evolution, “Hiss” is a surprise in its thrust, the farthest point they’ve yet reached in that side of their ongoing experiment. They pull it off, of course. Seven albums in, if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be on the record, but to take the fullness of “Hiss” and put it in the context of a song like “Your Russia,” which was the penultimate cut and payoff point for Wovenhand‘s debut 12 years ago only emphasizes the distance between where they’ve been and where they are, by extension, where they might go. To predict when it comes to Wovenhand is no more productive than trying to pigeonhole them with a genre, so I’ll abstain, but the blend of moods and variety in volume and arrangement on Refractory Obdurate speaks to a continuing progression. How that might manifest, or if it will, I don’t know. For at least the last four Wovenhand albums, the feeling has been that they’ve arrived at their most definitive point yet, and Refractory Obdurate confirms that they keep placing that target far enough out of their reach to keep up the chase. If it’s fair to anticipate anything, it’s that.

Wovenhand, Refractory Obdurate (2014)

Wovenhand on Thee Facebooks

Wovenhand at Deathwish Inc.

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