March 10, 2015 | Mercury Lounge
The clock on stage showed a prompt 7:02 as White Hills opened their set on a wet but—finally—somewhat warm Tuesday night in Manhattan. Guitarist Dave W. stood stage right, holding back initially as bassist Ego Sensation, stage left, laid out a simple phrase descending step-wise over a sparse drumbeat. The room was mostly full despite the early hour, and as the crowd filed in our attention was drawn not to Dave, or Ego, or guest drummer John Brodeur, but rather to the two figures in the middle of the stage, a man and woman clad in scant white rags, their skin chalky-white, their bodies crumpled up on the stage floor, writhing.
Being a rube, my first thought was: Okay, zombies. To be fair, this impression was in keeping with a vague genre-film element to the proceedings. Ego, wearing a black dress with silver trim and a matching silver collar around her shoulders—which, with its intricate whorls, looked like a cross between a Richard Serra sculpture and the gleaming façade of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao—would not have looked out of place in a ’60s sci-fi movie. And Dave W., with his long black hair, glossy black shirt, and discreet eye-shadow, looked like a more subdued Alice Cooper.
As the pale duo slowly shivered their way up from fetal position to agonized crouch, the band launched into a down-tempo number of controlled intensity, less a brisk funeral march than a sauntering andante, like the soundtrack for a slo-mo tracking shot in an action movie: the hero’s arrival, not kicking ass yet, but preparing to do so. This was “Lead the Way,” from the band’s forthcoming record Walks for Motorists, due out in April on Thrill Jockey. If I mention “When the Levee Breaks,” it’s only because you might not have been there and I’m trying to give you an idea, kind of like when you order a beer but the keg’s just kicked, so the bartender suggests something similar—not trying to be precise, just helpful.
On the record, “Lead the Way” rides a repetitive bass figure in a minor key, subtonic to tonic, reaching up to the mediant at the third bar. Bass and drums form such a solid foundation that the guitar’s role is more atmospheric than harmonic, filling out stretches of the eight-minute-plus song with searing wah-wah solos. Keeping an eye on the onstage clock, I put tonight’s version at 10 minutes. Dave W.’s vocals were beefed up with near-infinite delay, and the whole sound was bathed in a hazy, underwater distortion, as if played at full volume through a 30-watt amp with a built-in chorus setting.
The zombies departed before the third song, and it’s here I should tell you that these were dancers Chris Carlone and Leah Beltran, performing a Japanese style of dance called Butoh. Speaking backstage after the show (or rather in the Mercury Lounge’s basement, a really cool environment but, caveat lector, not the most ideally suited for capturing quotes), Ego explained that the dancers were friends of the band. Butoh’s “quiet intensity,” she said, its “quiet, contained body movement” appealed to her, and suggested the idea for a collaboration.
The next portion of the band’s set, on the now-vacated stage, kept up that intensity, with two back-to-back numbers featuring that same straightforward movement between tonic and subtonic in the bass, and a steady, rhythmic pulse. Walks for Motorists is something of a departure for the band, who, after recording eight albums themselves—by their count—over the course of their career, decided to enlist a producer. They also went in determined to pare down the guitar that had been featured so prominently on their previous records. The goal, according to Dave W., was to “take things down to their basic state.” To do this, he said, you need “a proper foundation,” and “[the foundation of] loud electric music is the rhythm.”
The band traveled to Wales to record at producer David Wrench’s studio. The new setting gave the band a more relaxed environment; for the first time they were able to demo songs. They spent seven or eight days in the studio, Ego said, as opposed to their customary two or three. The band arrived with upwards of 50 new songs to choose from, according to Dave W., none of which were written on guitar. By scaling back the guitar element, Dave explained, the band highlighted the song itself.
Tonight’s show was the band’s first chance to present the new material live, and though there was definitely a strong groove to much of the material, the guitar was by no means absent. Standing over his wah-wah pedal, Dave W. unleashed solos—“unleashed” is indeed the word—that a less self-conscious critic could easily label “blistering” or even “heroic.” I use the scare quotes not to be dismissive, but only due to what I think is a reasonable assumption that nowadays you don’t really see as much of this sort of thing anymore.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t, well, kind of awesome. White Hills’ set was characterized by a perfectly-matched bombast: this wasn’t an arena rock band forced to bottle its sound, but rather a weird trio playing scuzzy-yet-sparse, groove-heavy rock to a packed crowd in a mid-sized club during happy hour on a Tuesday. Towards the end of the set the Butoh dancers came back, and this time they had white lights strapped to their palms. Man, I thought, these zombies are cool.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.