It’s always interesting to see how instrument choices and production techniques can have such a strong effect on dating a band or album. Whether it’s the arena-sized, cannon-shot snare drums of the 1980s or the hyper-compressed, extended-range guitars of today, there are a host of characteristics within rock and metal that can instantly transport a listener into another landscape. Hexvessel, however, seem to have been frozen in time, specifically 1973. With their third LP, When We Are Death, this Finnish sextet have come back after four years with an organic and somewhat convincing throwback record that suffers from an unfortunate predilection for exact simulation of the past.
Aside from the clean and spacious mixing job, there is no reason one wouldn’t believe When We Are Death was written by an underground sensation from the golden age of classic rock. Combining the quirky electric organ flourishes of The Doors with Comus’ folk-infused darkness and Black Widow’s affinity for the occult, this album is an undeniable force of psychedelic-fueled proficiency. Hell, even the amazing piano intro to “Cosmic Truth” sounds like it was directly lifted out of Richard Wright’s playbook. All eleven tracks here are awash in LSD, caked with psilocybin and garnished with a healthy serving of dope too. One brief look at just about any of the album’s lyrics will certainly give away that these guys and gals are certainly advocating for introspection through the use of mind-altering substances.
Luckily though, things never get too carried away or lost in preachy lyrics or self-indulgent jam sections. When We Are Death is rooted firmly in fairly-traditional and digestible songwriting and also boasts a healthy number of catchy choruses that can be hummed back immediately. Frontman/guitarist Mat McNerney’s versatile and dynamic performances on here are perhaps the album’s highlight. Ranging from the sensitive moments of “Mirror Boy,” the freakouts of “When I’m Dead,” or the downright stunning “Teeth of the Mountain,” McNerney shows his mastery of propelling the band’s ideas to new heights.
Instrumentally speaking, When We Are Death shows a band that certainly knows how to interlock parts at an impressive level right out of the gate. “Transparent Eyeball” is a positively awesome opener, showing that every member understands their role within the group quite well and understand the natural dynamics that each song carries. This song and “Mushroom Spirit Doors” are perhaps the band’s two most competent instrumental tracks, as they both seamlessly weave and twist through various time and key signature changes without ever coming across as forced or awkward. Hexvessel also seem to avoid solo sections almost entirely on this album, forsaking the individual for the collective. That being said, the guitar tone on here leaves a bit to be desired. Songs like the triplet-heavy “Drugged Up on the Universe” and “Shaman You” could have really been accelerated further with a slightly grittier tone, but unfortunately we’re left with something that feels a bit flat for the standards of rock music we have in 2016.
When We Are Death may suffer from a few odd mixing choices the album’s last two tracks don’t keep the momentum going, but this record is still one of the better things you’ll hear from this current generation of “retro” bands. While groups like Ghost and Opeth (specifically their past two releases) can really seem to make 70s throwback ideas seem a bit forced and hokey at times, Hexvessel exude way more confidence in what they’re putting out there. This is not to be missed if you’re a fan of psychedelic rock, folk, or old-school prog.