Hair Police – Mercurial Rites

illustration by Chris O’Neal

Bands in underground music seem to come and go quicker than ever, with fickle audiences shifting interests as attention spans shrink and browsers constantly refresh. What’s touted as extreme and exciting one month is often forgotten in the greater timespan as years and decades roll on. From their earliest days Hair Police has always been an anomaly, a strange mishmash of personalities and musical styles. Drummer Trevor Tremaine would be playing manic free energy drumming with a sparkle boa around his shoulders and white plastic sunglasses blocking his gaze while front-man Mike Connelly, shrieked in bouts of boundless hysterics and ripped at his shredded, detuned guitar. Dressed in black, a menacing coil that explodes on impact, his presence causing audience members to shake their fists in celebration. Robert Beatty, off to the side would be twisting bizarre frequencies like something out of the BBC radio phonic workshop, the whole while his cord wrapped around his throat like a noose. Watching them play became something to behold.

In the five years since the release of Hair Police’s last album nothing else expressed the unique chemistry that is generated by the three musicians in this now iconic unit. Theoretically, Hair Police shouldn’t work, and in fact, they don’t function as any other group. Hair Police explore the edges of their abilities and create their own language as a trio, each meeting somewhere in the center, truly greater than the sum of their parts. This is not a polemic that can be imitated and they walked their own strange path over the last decade of releases, including their seminal Obedience Cuts, an album that stands among the absolute classics of its era. After a five-year silence the band has returned with its most striking and defining record yet, Mercurial Rites, their first for Type Records. While immediately recalling their past glories the sound is distinctly clearer and therefore ultimately more threatening.

“We were playing songs with our usual live instrumentation and they were coming out much more subdued, psychedelic, and full of dread and space,” said Beatty. “Space was very important to this record, and I think you can hear that in all of the songs on this record. Everything has room to breath, but still maintains a claustrophobic aura.”

“This is something we’ve always strived for, and I think it has been the most successfully realized with Mercurial Rites.”

A claustrophobia is apparent from the beginning. Connelly repeats the phrase “We are ready to lose,” which in his gnarled delivery comes off more of a threat than any kind of admission of failure. “We wanted to set the mood from the first seconds and let it melt over the album,” said Connelly. “This is something we’ve always strived for, and I think it has been the most successfully realized with Mercurial Rites.” Relieved from any expectation, Hair Police cater to their own vacuum, a space they write into the music to further the tension. Instead of a constant barrage the album sounds more like a dialogue, albeit one taking place at the bottom of a basement trench hidden from the rest of the world.

Tremaine describes the process for him; “There are massive voids in the music that feel like being abandoned or set adrift without any direction or cognizance, then you are sort of jarred back into the fractal Hair Police ‘grooves’ that have a sort of logic that I can’t even really decipher. The overall effect is disorientation, anxiety, dislocation.” While these themes have always been present in their music on tracks like “Scythed Wide,” they are brought most clearly into focus.

At times Hair Police have performed howling maelstroms of sound. The quiet found here is equally if not more jarring. Lyrically and musically the track sounds like an inverted death twin of Ken Nordine. Connelly intones, clearly and repeatedly, “I like this color”. The effect is discomforting. “It’s always been more about dynamics than volume, and I think this record highlights that distinction,” says Connelly. “It becomes more about the head than the body. I have been trying to expand my voice for the past few years. With that song, I thought the vocals fit the lyrics. I have been more interested in people actually understanding the lyrics as well. I think they add to the overall atmosphere, set the tone, and really create a context for the songs.” Such atmosphere is the currency the band trades in, their sense of dynamics lying far outside the standards of expectations which make them continually engaging to listen to. Connelly’s abstractions only heighten the unease rather than give direction.

Despite the stylistic comings and goings of others Hair Police remain innately their own creature. Where so many bands get by following trends or ripping off what came before them its natural to be uncomfortable when confronted with a band that is actually strange. Mercurial Rites stands as a record that can be returned to and listened to repeatedly. The success of these new techniques seems to stem from the natural progression of having played together for so many years, growing up together in Kentucky. “The main thing is trust. You have to completely trust the other people you are playing with,” said Connelly. “We all trust one and other. Once you reach that point everything else just takes over.” Like three men exploring a cavern, Hair Police use every creak, lull and bang to document their findings. The evidence is fascinating.

by STEVE LOWENTHAL on 2/22/2013 in Features, Interviews | Tags: , , , , , ,