If it wasn’t for feelings, music might not be anything more than a spattering of sounds; so much clacking, thumping, ringing and whooshing in the air, sometimes signaling something of note but mostly not. So the feeling that a record evokes is more than just important, it’s often the crux of the thing. Great music makes us feel. Great heavy metal music often tries (however successfully) to make us feel things we don’t like to feel. The question of why is a loaded one, but it’s probably safe to say that confronting those uncomfortable feelings can be empowering because, well, we’ve confronted something uncomfortable and a lot of folks just aren’t willing to do that. It’s a bit of a tough thing to nail down, that feeling, but it might look like a strange mix of sad and strong, afraid and proud. The picture of it might be watching someone you love struggle mightily from some place too far away to help. Maybe they won’t let you help. Maybe it’s too late. That place is where Young Hunter made their new record.
The essence of that feeling is the key to the Young Hunter experience, but getting there doesn’t happen without the immediate hook of the sound, which is among the band’s greatest strengths, as it’s both familiar and new. If you can imagine: the weight of Warning (or for the younger bucks, Pallbearer), mysterious haze of The Black Angels, melodies of Blue Öyster Cult, and the vitality of High Spirits/Dawnbringer mastermind, Chris “Professor” Black.
Young Hunter has come a long way the last few years, both literally and figuratively. Benjamin Blake has followed his muse from a lonely seat with his thoughts through Arizona desert dusk to the bluegreen temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, where he’s allowed roots to interlace with those of the other four members of Young Hunter’s current and best incarnation. Blake writes the songs and has maintained a singularity of purpose since its inception, so it’s clear whose band it is, but while Young Hunter’s lifeblood streams from Blake, it necessarily courses through the players with whom he’s surrounded himself. The goal from the beginning has been to tether the magic of psychedelia to the heavy of the real, or maybe the other way ‘round. He calls it psychedelic doom, which works very nicely. Either way, Blake’s vision is less contrast than communion of these ideas and his ideals, that subtle difference reflected in the synergy of the band and being perhaps the best reason Young Hunter is a resounding success.
Throughout their sophomore full-length, Young Hunter’s strategy is focused on grooving a riff or bass line into a well-worked channel and leaving it to ride there. It’s an effective strategy because those foundational lines, catchy and satisfying as they are, provide scaffolding for sweet melodies and harmonies from both vocals and guitars. Co-vocalist Sara Pinnell’s as comfortable up front as she is in support, giving the air of Young Hunter a bit of shimmer against Blake’s own earthy and unvarnished voice. That complementary approach is central to the effectiveness of Young Hunter and no more so than in the lead and rhythm guitar alchemy of Blake and Erik Wells. If bass and drums make the forest floor and vocals the trees and their leafage, those guitars are the coursing wind and answering birdsongs in the canopy.
And that borderline (or totally) corny analogy really captures it, though, the bit of Blake’s approach that pushes Young Hunter past fresh and interesting to genuinely engaging. If you pay attention to the lyrical content and allow it to work through the musical context, you’ll get it: the sincerity of Blake’s enterprise, which is to help you feel what he feels because he’s hoping it might help somebody, someplace, somehow. It isn’t enough to lay down some cool riffs with words about religion or war or ecological ruin. To make it more, he treats the riff as an integral piece of the song around it and infuses extra sound to build contextual cues that transport the listener to a place that makes it real: the loneliness of existential exploration; a McCarthian landscape; the martial advance of Progress and the desolate swath that follows.
Most interesting, though, and maybe the best part of all the really great stuff about Young Hunter, is that for all the doom and gloom, its tales are recalled and foretold from a place bathed in light and hope:
You are not alone in the pain that fills the human heart /
though you wander on your own for lifetimes in the dark.
Seeing ourselves and our children beset on all sides by the fallout of our own and our ancestors’ mistakes, Blake knows the pain and understands the futility of handwringing for the headstrong and yet never lets go of the notion that a song might hold just enough power to sway just one person and that might be just enough for now.