Sam Goblin currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.
The first time I had the good fortune of encountering HXXS was (improbably) on a mild Fouth of July at a house show in Akron, Ohio. My old band was passing through there on tour, and as we sat around before the show the booker informed us that ”some electronic band” had joined the bill in the eleventh hour. I watched them load in from the front porch, registering that at least one of them was wearing sunglasses as they lugged seemingly endless mystery boxes and tangled nests of cables out of the van they’d apparently been living in for the last few months. I assumed we were in for 45 minutes or so of broke-ass Skrillex, and could not have been more wrong. Shortly after they finished transporting an entire Radio Shack into the venue, we got to talking with them and they casually mentioned that some kid on acid in the audience of one of their recent shows had vomited as soon as they started playing. Now I was intrigued…
Most of the bands that performed that night were pretty squarely in the emo/pop-punk zone; someone played an acoustic cover of a Brand New song, ironic American flag apparel abounded, funny hats swam through the audience, you get the picture (no shade, it was a good time!) HXXS didn’t so much play the show though as they commandeered it. They brought their own PA in order to facilitate the massive volume their music calls for, and when they took the stage it was like watching the sun plummet out of the sky and night descend at 2 PM with no warning or apparent cause. Within the first minute, I understood exactly why someone had vomited during one of their sets.
They began with Jeannie Colleene writhing on the ground, shrieking “You can’t keep a good witch down!” while working some kind of godless wizardry on her pedal board. Meanwhile, Gavin Neves crawled up and down the deck where the bands were performing, intermittently torturing his guitar and bending himself over whatever strange circuitry they use, mashing buttons like a demonic bellhop. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that they didn’t exactly go over at this show. I remember the confusion and dismay darkening the faces of the many flannel-clad onlookers. I also remember that my bandmates and I couldn’t stop smiling or punching each other in the shoulders the entire time.
The kicker here, and the reason I took way too long to invoke this particular day in Akron, Ohio, is that CHANNELER kind of makes their set that night sound like Coldplay. I like to think of myself as having a pretty strong stomach, but there are moments on this record that are legitimately hard for me to listen to. I want to stress that this isn’t because the record isn’t awesome, or isn’t musical — as abrasive as HXXS can get, they’re always grounded in some way by the song. There’s usually some semblance of a groove that they seem to be teasing out as they go along, some element that could generously be called a “hook,” and just a general sense of instinct, musicality, and mood that underpins the whole thing. Really, as out there as CHANNELER is, a lot of it is quite catchy in its way. It’s just, y’know… not the smoothest ride.
You can certainly nod your head to “CONVERGENT,” a lurching slapper featuring what I’d submit as Lyric of the Year (“Go get a gun/these dudes out here horny on main!”) There’s even the ballad-ish “DEJA VU” which is downright pretty, and more in line with the R&B inflected material on their MKDRONE EP, if just a little harder to swallow. “STARVE” is pure fun, with the hilarious recurring “mmm mmm mmm mmm” vocal sample punctuated by ear-shattering percussive blasts that bring to mind an entire waitstaff dropping all their dishes at once. “CAREFUL WHAT U WISH 4” is another highlight, with muted percussion that sounds like a bunch of doors closing themselves in a haunted house as well as a feature from the always stunning Moor Mother.
“Peter, Bjorn, & John the Baptist” unfolds more like a horror movie than a song, complete with the requisite jump scares. Over the course of three minutes, it goes from galloping along to petering out into a strange laughing sample, back to galloping, then it fades into total silence which is subsequently broken with a blood-curdling “RECKONING’S COMING!” By the final “baptize me, daddy!” you might be sweating and chuckling nervously as one might after a particularly unsettling and satisfying sequence in a horror movie.
The main reason this record is a tough listen at times though actually has nothing to do with the unpredictability or the occasional ambushes of noise. For me, it’s the sheer intensity in the vocals. This isn’t indebted to any kind of production trick, just good old-fashioned, straight up human pain. Neves’ screams on “HUM” are disturbingly realistic approximations of full on, crisis-mode psychosis. When I first heard the part of the end of “WORMTONGUE” where Colleene shrieks, “Fuck around and find out….WOO!” I actually jumped. “FIRST RESPONDER” is similarly chilling, with the cries of “Medic! Medic!” and “Stay with me!” over the disorienting guitar riff and percussion patterns truly evoking the feeling of witnessing a horrific accident. This is not faceless, aloof experimental music. In fact, at times it’s maybe a little too authentic.
The band recently wrote on Twitter in a half-joking response to a poor review on Rate Your Music that “between watching someone get murdered and almost getting shot WHILE mixing in the span of a year got like zero interest and patience to be coddling anyone thru a listening experience….” Listening to CHANNELER, this checks out. It feels like the product of a violent, disquieting time; a work dedicated to preserving moments of terror and calling up the associated feelings as precisely as possible. By the end of the album you kind of get a feel for the course the songs might take, and may even begin to develop a kind of trauma response where you start to expect the little disasters that pop up along the way — waiting for catastrophes that may never come in the real world but will certainly come in the CHANNELER world. An album that is able to change the way you anticipate music, even for an hour, is a truly impressive feat. Still, maybe not the most appropriate stuff for a Fourth of July BBQ.