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White Hills - Heads on Fire

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Artist: White Hills

Album: Heads on Fire

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jul. 14, 2009

Opening with a slowing synth oscillation that quickly breaks into rumbling bass and fuzz-guitar riffage, Heads on Fire makes a space-rock promise that it keeps throughout its 52 minutes. Originally released in 2007 on Rocket Records, White Hills’ space opus is now available to a wider audience, with (reportedly) a new album on the horizon.

Talked up by the likes of Julian Cope, White Hills join a seemingly ever-growing contingent of "new wave of psych-space-rock" bands. From Wooden Shjips to Cave, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound to Earthless, there’s no shortage of fuzz-pedal abuse to be found these days. Where White Hills differs from many of their compatriots, though, is in their direct influences. Rather than drawing from the hip and obscure, the riffs and sounds on Heads on Fire point the way directly to Hawkwind. From the flanged guitar and delayed vocals of "Radiate" to (especially) the power chords and chanting of "Oceans of Sounds,” it’s clear. Of current bands, none comes to mind more than Farflung, who remain perhaps the most successful updaters of Hawkwind’s sound with modern punk intensity.

It’s not until reaching about the halfway point here that White Hills begin to chart their own trajectory. The 26-minute "Don’t Be Afraid" contains some new moves. Much slower than the previous riffs, here the band takes its time and head farther out into deep space. There’s still some good, heavy guitar, but things open up wider. Moments of near-silence, gentle synth washes and swirling atmospherics serve as breathers between heavier passages, and the dynamics serve the band well. When tslowly-expanding chants finally burst into a massive wall of guitar fuzz at the 17-minute mark, it’s a really effective moment.

That’s not to say that the shorter rockers here aren’t strong ones – they are, and I’ll happily crank up "Visions of the Past, Present and Future" and sway along with the great, flipped-out guitar work. But it’s "Don’t Be Afraid" that I’ll remember and return to.

By Mason Jones

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