Being, by reasonable standards of measurement, as adrift as the next motherfucker, I think about God all the time. I wake up, give praise, fear oblivion like it was right before me, and then spend the rest of the day generally being an ungrateful shit. I figure a favor isn’t really a favor if you are constantly being reminded of it. And what’s the universe but a constant reminder of God’s unasked for grace? I also, being a Jew who, while not a native, has adopted a proper New Yorker’s contempt for his fellow citizens, like to go to bars and defend Catholicism to punks. Faith is interesting and real to me, your Propagandhi back patch and Richard Dawkins book considerably less so. I would undoubtedly feel differently if I were surrounded by Bible-thumpers, but I leave the hypotheticals to the agnostics. And I usually believe in God.
David Eugene Edwards, formerly of “gothic Americana” band 16 Horsepower and now of Wovenhand, is less prone to the hem and the haw than I am. With all due respect to Nick Cave and his “I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” David Eugene Edwards isn’t interested in hedging that particular bet. Edward’s God is present. His god is Jesus Christ and he is actualized. Like Flannery O’Connor famously said of the “symbolism” of the Eucharist: “If it’s just a symbol then to hell with it.”
Back when David Eugene Edwards (or “Dee,” as he’s commonly referred to) was a young tough in 16 Horsepower and more prone to the grotesquerie of revelation, he got Flannery O’Connor comparisons all the time. In the same condescension that Eastern liberal critics so often showed O’Connor herself, he was praised but also often perceived as a Hazel Motes-type savant, a snake-handling yokel whose wisdom was almost unintentional. This foolishness, of course, denied the wry and caustic humor of a man who inverted Nancy Sinatra and sang “My knees was made for kneelin’/An’ that’s just what they’ll do/One of these days, little girl/I’ll go down an’ pray for you.” Now Dee’s main focus is Wovenhand, and his lyrical content, as seen on his group’s new album Refractory Obdurate, is still dark but less concerned with the murder and mayhem of small town Cainites and more concerned with the world, the Word, and the possibilities, however slim, of salvation.
I don’t pretend to understand 90% of the biblical references, but their handling remains sly while the intent remains serious. While not of any specific Christian denomination, Edwards avoids the vague feel-good notions of just being “spiritual.” Wovenhand inhabits a world of clear delineations between right and wrong. God is right, we’re all wrong, and hope for salvation comes a distant second to the striving for righteousness. Not sure what the conversations in the studio with the members of Planes Mistaken for Stars (whose guitarist Chuck French and bassist Neil Keener play — extremely well I might add — on the record) were like. Pretty sure post-hardcore dudes aren’t allowed to accept any lord but Walter Schreifels.
While keeping a bit of the pluck and countrified tumble of his early career, Dee has continued the trend, starting with 16 Horsepower’s second album Low Estate (1997) and continuing throughout all the Wovenhand catalogue, of being a proper hard rock outfit, even adding doom elements. (And by doom, I don’t mean the atmospheric slow jams that so often represent the genre, I mean DOOOOOOOM: Sabbath, St. Vitus. Yob. It’s no coincidence that Sanford Parker, who plays in the extremely swell Minsk and produced the aforementioned Yob, mixed the album.) A number of these songs are as sonically heavy as they are emotional weighty. But, and this is a true blessing, they are never plodding. The imagery of galloping horses in heavy guitar music is cliché and Wovenhand deserves better. So, staying true to our themes of worship, “Good Shepherd” and “Hiss” both buck and surge like Thor’s goats. (Teeth Barer and Tooth Grinder in case you’re looking for names for your firstborn.)
Through much of the album, Dee’s singing is distorted, like it was recorded through a small guitar amp. I call it the “H.R. Singing from Prison” effect and Ben Greenberg calls it the “Video Killed the Radio Star Plug-In.” I have enough respect for all involved with Wovenhand that I assume that it’s not a plug-in. Regardless of the source, the effect is distancing at times. I don’t judge the aesthetic choice and if I have an issue with it, it’s solely because I truly enjoy the keening tenor of Dee’s voice, free of either gild or static. But it’s his band and I’m sure he has his reasons.
Probably, at this juncture, the only artistic peers Wovenhand have in expression of apocalyptic faith are the Mountain Goats and Watain. John Darnielle’s faith might be a slightly more progressive mode of worship, but both he and Dee share a deep affinity for, and fanbase of, black metal musicians. As Edwards has noted in interviews, people of high seriousness recognize their own. High seriousness in God talk can sometimes descend into the Harry Crews-esque artful male fantasy, but I think Wovenhand avoids that. And even if I sometimes prefer the sweet Jesus of Dolly Parton to the Christ and Anti-Christ constant wrestle of Wovenhand and its dark Norwegian counterparts, I will always return to the music that takes the dim view of humanity’s prospects. It certainly rings truer in the end.
Refractory Obdurate is Wovenhand’s seventh album. The title means obstinately resisting authority. Or the title means mule-headedly resisting healing. If I haven’t devoted enough time to the actual music on this album, it’s because I find the subject matter and the conflict that underlies it so fascinating. To resist the Mystery is the subject (along with, you know, sex and death) so I hope I’m forgiven for focusing on what is, after all, Wovenhand’s focus. But let me do some due critical diligence and assure you that the music on Refractory Obdurate is wonderful. A potent combination of post-punk, post-hardcore, metal, and, yes, gothic Americana, every song can be taken as more or less than a meditation on God and sin. The record can be taken as an entertainment, a distraction, a perfect driving and smoking soundtrack or, where faith and art intersect, a salve on a wound.