Tame Impala, Pond, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Dead Meadow, Dungen, Goat, Six Organs of Admittance. You can barely turn a corner without bumping into a band squeezing fresh inspiration from half-forgotten, newly hip psych-rock templates from the deepest, darkest recesses of bygone decades.
It takes some doing to stand out in such a densely populated market. Finland’s Death Hawks managed that with impressive ease on their debut Death & Decay. One year and a gazillion gigs later, the four-piece are back – and initially barely recognisable, such is the quantum leap in their singularity of vision and daring blend of esoteric influences.
Instead of the greasy hard rock, dust-blown balladry and bastard offspring of the blues that populated Death & Decay, an inspired but – in this new light – unashamedly retro-minded hop into the time machine with the controls set to the hairiest regions of late 60′s/70′s, this self-titled second album mashes up the band’s influences into such compellingly odd shapes you’re no longer sure which planet you’re on, never mind the decade.
The spooky ‘Night Children’ sets the tone. Coming on like the shamanistic soundtrack to Wicker Man set in Lapland, the band eschew anything as ordinary as vocal melodies; frontman Teemu Markkula mutters various hellish visions of damnation whilst percussion rattles, a choir coos, a Hammond organ quivers and predominantly acoustic guitars are plucked and gently strummed, as opposed to being battered in the sweaty service of boogie, as they were in the past.
Anchored by a hypnotic whistled hook, ’Cain Go Home’ comes on like Ennio Morricone gliding over perma-frozen tundra on a broomstick. By the time you get to what passes as a ‘normal’ song, which you’ll do on the swirling, steadily intensifying sea shanty ‘Blind Daughter of Death’ (a faint glimmer of Led Zep’s ‘The Battle of Evermore’ may be detected) and the bleary-eyed blues of ‘Quiet Sun’ (slight echoes of Green/Kirwan era Fleetwood Mac here), it’s almost a letdown next to the startling originality of the murky freak-outs, superb as the material is.
It’s a subtle, often hushed record, but the energy levels remain at the rooftop level throughout despite the unhurried tempos. As with Swedish compatriots Goat (just replace their love of The Stooges with battered spaghetti western soundtracks), Death Hawks take their music, but not necessarily themselves, very seriously. There’s an easily detectable wink amongst all the demonic goings-on, but only the grandiose drama of ‘Grim-eyed Goat’ threatens to slide into excessively gonzoid territory.
It’s easy to overlook the odd stumble when faced with the majesty of ‘Black Acid‘, a hypnotic 9-minute procession of propulsive galloping percussion, slinky guitar lines with a kinship to the desert blues of Tinariwen, wailing saxophone and massed chanting in hard-to-decipher tongues; it’s difficult to describe this titanic track with any degree of accuracy, but one thing is certain: it’s far removed from the retraceable homages of Death & Decay.
Refreshingly for such an individualistic, experimental album, Death Hawks has gained rave notices and high visibility in Finland, a country with a miniscule music market that doesn’t usually look kindly on folks leaping into the unknown. An uncommonly brave and successful reinvention, it deserves to repeat the trick abroad.