If the life experiences and environment of an artist affect the music she creates, then it’s only natural that the life experiences and environment of a listener should also affect the way she experiences music. I work in downtown Chicago and ride a commuter train into the office. By the time I get on the train, it’s often packed to standing-room only. When this happens, I typically try to stand in the aisle at the very front of the train’s head car. The door at the front of this car has a window which, because the train is driven by an engine at the rear of the car, looks directly out at the tracks below.
If you stand right at this window as the train barrels into the city, you can witness a striking yet gradual shift in the landscape, as the leafy, residential suburbs and farther-flung neighborhoods give way to more densely packed areas, as the expressways and other arterial train lines cross and converge, and as the neighborhoods finally fall away like foothills to the mountainous sprawl of stockyards, factories, and the rusting infrastructure of heavy industry, all of it in the increasingly imposing shadow of the Chicago skyline.
This, of course, is not unique to Chicago. Plenty of big cities are like this, with different areas and neighborhoods illustrating the city as it used to be, as it is, and as it would like to think of itself. Just the other week, I happened to be listening to Hark’s excellent second album Machinations while standing at the front of the train, and there was an almost uncanny symmetry between the music and the surroundings, because just as the city teems with those contradictions – between the glass-sheen skyscrapers and the train yards, between the manicured green spaces and the belching factories – so does this music.
If that seems like one hell of a lot of preamble to a review of a heavy metal record, well… here’s some more. Although Hark is still a relatively new band, their roots stretch back to the defunct Welsh trio Taint, which was also led by guitarist and singer Jimbob Isaac. (If you have any jokes to make, feel free to get them out of your system now.) Taint’s debut album, the absurdly undervalued The Ruin of Nová Roma, landed in 2005, but although that chronology placed them quite squarely in the burgeoning (and soon to be oversaturated) movement of tuneful sludge/stoner metal that included Baroness, Torche, Kylesa, Red Fang, and so many others, the band had already existed for at least a decade beforehand.
At this point, if you’re starting to get the sense that I’m eager to anticipate or preempt a certain line of criticism of Hark, you’re not wrong. Every micro-genre or musical scene goes through roughly the same stages: innovation, imitation, bandwagoning, critical mass, and (ultimately) stagnation. Of course, that generic lifecycle is unfair on several counts, inasmuch as early adopters with worse music sometimes get a pass because of quirks of timing, as well as due to the fact that there are often hidden gems lurking amidst the glut of generally uninspired copycatting that characterizes the critical mass and stagnation phases.
But here, anyway, comes Hark, trotting out a sound that is very much familiar, and may sound quite out of fashion. (This, by the way, is mostly fine: fashion is a smokescreen that delays necessary culling unnecessarily.) Hark blends the thick, clotted riffing of sludge with the infinite-horizon drift of stoner rock, and matches bluesy psychedelia with vaguely melodic hollering vocals. Absolutely none of these things are unexpected, and yet Machinations is a gleaming bounty of impossibly good vibes because Hark executes each and every one of those moves with craft, passion, and undeniable charm.
There’s a fair amount of similarity between Hark and both Torche and early (think First/Second/Red) Baroness, but Machinations indulges in its fair share of flashiness, with gives some of the songs a Blood Mountain-ish Mastodon touch, while the motorik sludge midsection of “Disintegrate” is closer to something like Acid King. The easiest comparison, though, is to Isaac’s former band Taint. Hark’s sound is clearly dredged from the same songwriting well, but in general Hark is a bit more spry, a bit more melodic, and quite a lot less tethered to the sludgy signifiers of Taint. And really, it’s hard to call most of Machinations sludge when it swings SO hard. Machinations is further proof of how the line between stoner/psych rock and sludge can be a pleasantly thin one, where groups like Wo Fat or Elder fall to one side but Hark tilts just enough to the metallic side of things to cross to the other.
Of course, all of this genre mapping and pinpointing does a disservice to Machinations by downplaying its real strength, which is a batch of fantastic songs with riff after riff, lead and lead, and warm, top-down cruising solo after solo. Most songs are structured around a solidly elastic riff, but there’s plenty of room allowed for wandering, from the grimily Motorhead-ish ending of “Fortune Favors the Insane” to the hugely swaggering swing of “Speak in Tongues” and the bluesy, whammied solo and leads scattered throughout “Nine Fates.”
Machinations also improves significantly on Hark’s 2014 debut Crystalline by cutting a lot of the fat that weighed down the latter (which was nearly 10 minutes longer), and because Jimbob Isaac’s vocals, while still stuck in the mode of Pop-Sludge Yell-ody (™), are more confident, tuneful, and varied than they’ve been in the past. Even if this style of vocals has previously been a sticking point for you, Hark’s songs (and even their choruses) are built just as much around riffs and the rich instrumental interaction between the four players as they are around vocal lines, so if you can’t come for the singing, at least stay for the rock.
At about the halfway mark in album closer “The Purge,” the band opens up into a beautifully infectious, sun-kissed jam session. Simon Bonwick’s drums push a hard rock shuffle and spring off of Tom Short’s grit-throttled bass while Isaac and second guitarist Joe Harvatt trade wailing solos as the whole thing rides off into the sunset. Throughout the album’s finely crafted but unpretentious span, Hark unfolds just like a city that refuses to keep a single identity. The thickness of the guitar riffs, the idling purr of the bass, and the kick drum’s stutter are the factory worker’s brow sweat and the overpass’s dank echo, but the solos, the fills, the leads, the flashes of light and heat and air that arc above the machinic crush are like a blank horizon that someone once dreamed of filling with tall buildings. Music like this succeeds because of both its rootedness and its flight; because of people who know the feel of the earth under their feet even as they reach for the sky.