On Friday, Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds will release their new album Skeleton Tree, and other than the soul-wrecking first single “Jesus Alone,” I haven’t heard it yet. Nobody has. Cave’s label has sent out no advances, which means music critics like me are tingling with anticipation just like everybody else. This is Cave’s first album since his son fell off a cliff and died last year. Cave is an artist with a long, storied history of staring deeply into the darkest parts of the human experience, of drinking that darkness in and spitting it back out all over us. The fact that he’s back to recording music so soon after such a life-reshaping personal catastrophe is a miraculous testament to his own strength. Even before hearing the album, I can feel the weight of its presence. It’s out there, waiting. And in a few days, it will be stomping all over my soul. But now, there is a chance, however slight, that Skeleton Tree will not be the best Nick Cave album that comes out on Friday.
I’m being glib here, of course. Star Treatment, the new Wovenhand album, is not a Nick Cave album. It’s not fair to Cave to imply that it is. It’s also not fair to David Eugene Edwards, the Denver musician who has been leading Wovenhand since 2001, since it was a side project of his mutant-country band 16 Horsepower. But Edwards has been treading some of the same territory as Cave for a long time now. His music deals in the same darkness, the same obsessiveness. His songs are steeped in the history of American music, of folk and country and blues, and yet they owe as much to some of the clanging, confrontational forms that followed: punk, metal, hardcore, noise-rock. His songs sound like incantations, like prayers bubbling up from below. He’s not Cave, but he’s cut from the same cloth.
I’d been shamefully ignorant of Edwards’ work until Converge frontman Jacob Bannon’s label Deathwish, Inc. put out Wovenhand’s album Refractory Obdurate two years ago. Deathwish is usually an amazing source of coloring-outside-the-lines hardcore and metal, and I have a policy that I’ll listen to anything that label puts out at least once. Edwards’ clanging, crashing sermons are as much alt-country as they are metal, but he fit weirdly well into the label’s whole project. Wovenhand’s sonics only glancingly intersect with metal, but they conjure a grandeur that we can also hear in some of the best doom. With the new Star Treatment, Wovenhand have left Deathwish for the more amorphous indie Sargent House, but they might be more metal than they were last time out. Opener “Come Brave” has a grand, seething distorto-riff at its heart. The thundering groove of “Crook And Flail” might have pianos and bongos mixed in, but those instruments somehow add to its heaving enormity; they don’t just ornament it. “Golden Blossom” is one of the quieter moments here, but the warmth of its stargazing psychedelia feels like the dank-club equivalent of a lighters-up arena moment.
This time around, Edwards is drawing plenty of his help from the intersecting worlds of metal and hardcore. Two of the musicians from his band are also members of Planes Mistaken For Stars, the reactivated Midwestern post-hardcore greats. Sanford Parker, the renowned Chicago metal producer, recorded the album, and he did it at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio. But this isn’t Edwards’ punk album — at least, not any more than any of his others. Edwards is concerned with older things. He’s said that he named the album Star Treatment because he’s using it to explore humanity’s ancient fascination with the night sky. And in Star Treatment, we can hear the sounds of tiny human specks attempting to wrap minds around the infinite, around forces much grander than themselves. Edwards is a devout Christian, and that’s probably a part of it, too. There’s a ritualistic feel to the album, a sense of devotion to the cosmos. And even if you’re not the tiniest bit spiritual, which I’m not, there is a power in asking the mere questions that so many belief systems attempt to answer.
Edwards belongs to an older breed. He’s in there with Cave, Michael Gira, Carla Bozulich, Dan Higgs, Polly Jean Harvey, David Tibet. He’s a mystic wanderer, the type who seeks transcendence in darkness as well as in light. He never hides his voice. It’s a huge, barreling wail, a declamatory roar. And the music matches the majesty of that voice, calling on traditions that can sometimes go past ancestral country music and into tribal-chant territory. This is big music, a type of music that we don’t often hear anymore. It’s music for calling down heaven. There is plenty of great music coming out these days, but very little of it is concerned with summoning spirits in that same way. We don’t get many albums like this anymore. And if we end up getting two next week, we should feel fortunate indeed. We already got one.
Star Treatment is out 9/9 via Sargent House.