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Daniel Higgs - Ancestral Songs

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Artist: Daniel Higgs

Album: Ancestral Songs

Label: Holy Mountain

Review date: Jan. 25, 2007

Not sure what you know about Daniel Higgs (known here as Daniel Arcus Incus Ululat Higgs, Interdimensional Song-Seamstress, or so Ancestral Songs says), but he’s the frontman of the band Lungfish, a prestigious tattoo artist – word is that he decides what gets inked on you – and an expert at disarming social constructs with a preternaturally lucid cosmic blush, one in tune with itself and higher powers you can’t even see, one lit up to infuriate squares and business hippies all over the place. Imagine a man with such magnetic patience that he has been able to weather the world coming to him; put the beard on him, and you’re imagining Higgs. That Lungfish have been going since the late ’80s, born out of the same Maryland woods and likely the identical batches of acid that transformed contemporaries Moss Icon from a post-hardcore, post-teenage zit mountain into the raw, flailing band they ended up as. Drag that notion out on a timeline that closes in on 20 years, and imagine the pent-up beauty that could fall out of it. This is not a Lungfish review, though; this is something more.

Ancestral Songs is Higgs’s second solo album; his first, Magic Alphabet, was a collection of songs for solo jew’s harp, released in a small edition on Ian MacKaye’s Northern Liberties imprint. This follow-up might be more spacious, expanding the instrument library to guitar, banjo, harmonium and toy piano, but it’s every bit as obliterated. The six tracks here are marvelously individualistic. No compromises have been made in an effort to connect with its listeners; like many other aspects of what we know about Higgs’s life, it is here if you want it; it will not interfere with you, lest you do likewise. He follows a bit of the script that other psych-folk practitioners scrawl and squint over, but the songs maintain an inner gravity through mantra and destroyed raga. I’m reminded of the last Alvarius B. album, of Henry Barnes’ faith-filled reels as Amps for Christ, of beyond-the-pale starknesses by New Zealand singer-songwriters like Nigel Bunn or Alastair Galbraith, in the ballpark of which Higgs is playing; solo in every sense, eccentric to the point of damage; more and more captivating with each listen.

Look at “Thy Chosen Bride,” a 10-minute-plus meditation for banjo. Starting from a fixed point, he explores the instrument in a nimble, complete screed of note clusters, finger-picked in moving and isolated bunches that fall from his hands. After six-and-a-half minutes, Higgs drops the script and enters into a death march, his voice losing the authoritative bark of Lungfish and taking on a grim, Anglophilic pall, hissing with that dead-eyed trance that Roky knows, that Syd knew. “Does my foot not fall / On the perfect path? / The perfect path / Of your monstrous grace,” he sings of a world that hasn’t got much to do with him anymore, as suitable companionship drops off for an easier challenge. He prays a prayer in “O Come and Walk Along (For S.)” that is more of a finality, associating a Christ-like figure and transubstantiation theory with the music that’s surrounded his life, in a selection where his voice and words outstrip the guitar, a meditation to Earth gods in secular phrases brought forth with the conviction of a Messiah, able to raise plants from the soil with a wave of his hand. The feedback-encrusted “Time-Ship of the Demogorgon” and “Moharsing and Schoenhut” present the jew’s harp as more than a breaker of teeth or a quaint folk instrument, but as a piece of machinery that could strip the paint off a tanker ship. At no point in any track did I feel compelled to drift off, and the record’s hold proves difficult to shake away.

In every performance here, I’m reminded of immense rock walls and a crashing Northern sea beneath. The music’s plaintiveness allows me no further imagery. Monolithically alone and requiring no more unpacking than the artist will allow, Ancestral Songs delivers its edicts with light, firm power. Folk enthusiasts whose interests lie far, far outside of the mainstream will understand this release. It might be too strong for the casual listener, looking for an easy answer and ending up with a trepanning wound. For the rest of you, it’s on a case-by-case basis.

By Doug Mosurock

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