Wovenhand — Mosaic

Originally published on The Solute

How do you describe Wovenhand? When I downloaded them to my iTunes from my dad’s CD library, I made sure to amend their genre description from “alternative” to “bluegrass goth-rock,” (which got me blank stares whenever I tried to describe them in those terms). I’ve spent most of the past hour or more trying to chase down the precedent for their music. The folk and hymn influences are obvious, but Wovenhand reframes them in an environment we’ve rarely seen them.

At the time, I was only vaguely aware of goth from seeing the name applied to Tim Burton and his fans, but it seemed appropriate for a band that gave me the same gleefully creepy feeling as Burton’s films. Now that I’m more conversant with the genre, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” especially, it feels right, but incomplete. Frontman David Eugene Edwards, AKA DEE’s stated influences are, if not goth, then close cousins — Joy Division and Nick Cave, especially his early project The Birthday Party.

Allmusic suggests Tom Waits as a similar artist, and on paper, his brand of American Gothic seems to fit. But in practice, they couldn’t be more different. Waits cushions his horrors behind fantasy and camp. With Wovenhand, there’s never any doubt that, as the Louvin Brothers might say, Satan is real. Better to pair them with Cave, an Australian with the same gift for exposing the darkness in traditional American music and folklore. But we’re still not quite there. Heavy metal has always been one of my biggest musical blindspots — could that be the missing piece? Wovenhand’s opened with Tool, so it’s certainly possible.

These all hint at Wovenhand’s vibe, but what about DEE himself? He certainly doesn’t sound like he should be singing over these heavy instrumentals — not because he never rises above his even tone, but because his ecstasies are more like those of a holy roller than a heavy-metal howler. There’s a bit of old-time country there, the “high lonesome sound” of Roscoe Holcomb and the Stanley Brothers. There’s the odd mangling of tone and emphasis Bob Dylan pioneered, and like so many with his religious upbringing, Dylan’s gospel period was DEE’s first brush with the rock universe. he even drops in a reference to “New Morning on the stereo” on Mosaic.

But that’s not it either. Better to compare him to David Byrne, who shares Dylan and DEE’s odd inflection and enigmatic lyrics, but adds a fascination with American fundamentalism, and nervous, bony physicality to the mix. But both Dylan and Byrne used their affected oddness to distance themselves from their material, viewing it from some level of ironic remove, just like Waits and Cave. All these artists are among the strangest to achieve some degree of mainstream success. Wovenhand is stranger still, and here’s why. What they put on as a persona, DEE actually is.

There’s nothing ironic or ethnographical about DEE’s fundamentalism. He was raised by his grandfather, a bonafide fire-and-brimstone preacher after the death of his father, an alcoholic who “did everything the opposite of what his father taught him.” This puts DEE in a strange, possibly unique position, between his father’s and grandfather’s worlds: poised on the razor’s edge between pious restraint and rock debauchery, always leaning one way when you expect him to lean the other.

DEE says his first band, 16 Horsepower, broke up over disagreements about the band’s message. It’s hard not to read into that the uneasiness Wovenhand inspires, that DEE’s fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism might connect him to the political conservatism of that sect that’s made such hash out of the world. But then he turns around and says something like how he became obsessed with The Gun Club because of “the attitude. This anger at this white dominated, colonial attitude that just wants to rule the world and does rule the world. This backlash against that. Any band that was kind of doing that, I was into,” and the uncertainty deepens.

DEE talks a lot about how uneasily he fits in the rock scene. “I’m playing these clubs where people usually go to get away from people like me.” On the other side, there’s the canyon-sized gap between himself and every other practitioner of “Christian rock,” which, of course, rarely seems to quite rock. These artists are by and large the products of consumer Christianity, aiming for the widest, most conservative possible audience, oppressively safe and bland in both their music and their theology, which barely seems Christian at all to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Bible.

God, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in the Narnia books, is “not a tame lion…Of course he’s not safe!” As much as it resembles what used to be called (and for all I know still is among his grandfather’s tribe) “devil music,” Wovenhand’s apocalyptic fury is far better suited to the harshness of the biblical passages DEE sings than all the scrubbed-clean cheerfulness of most Christian music. Even lyrics like “All His glory” and “Halle-alle-lujah” sound like threats as DEE bellows them out.

I’ll let the man himself explain: “I’ve never liked Christian music outside of the church, like Christian rock music or contemporary Christian music, you know, like Amy Grant, or…you know…I mean, I agree with what they’re singing, but I don’t care if they sing about it or not. The way they sing about it, to me, does not affect me at all, it doesn’t make me want to worship God or follow after God.

“And God used other music, more aggressive, kind of darker music, to stir up my soul…What I find beautiful in the music I was attracted to is people were being very honest. I felt like Ian Curtis was being very honest when he was singing to me. I felt like Bon Scott from AC/DC was being very honest with me when he sang to me. And even though it was stuff I did not agree with, I thought it was very sincere.”

And everyone turned off by the “preachiness” of the average Christian rocker will find nothing to fear in this album by the preacher’s grandson. DEE speaks in riddles; at times his process seems to involve sticking a Bible in a blender and seeing what passages rise to the top.

”As to cast myself aside/As is the custom/As is the custom.”

“You are the noise/The elktooth chain/Lovely in the river’s mirror/You stand in my circle/The circle of my center here.”

“What they say is true./It is a dirty blue.”

“The circle is a vicious end/Spoken behind the hand,/A-quaking/In the person.”

The track titles are no help either — “Elktooth” for a song about a “double-minded man,” “Twig” for an adaptation of the early Christian verse of St. Ambrose, “Deerskin Doll” for a love song (which brings in the elktooth imagery absent from “Elktooth” itself. Any imagery about either deerskin or dolls, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen).

Make no mistake, the “devil music” label isn’t totally inaccurate. The album where Wovenhand took shape as a band in its own right, Mosaic is dark and frightening and, yes, demonic. (So were the solo albums, of course, but in a different way, with DEE accompanying himself on junk-shop instruments for a sound that leans more to the folk side of his folk/rock/metal equation.)

And that’s as it should be. If you let yourself feel it, there’s something oppressively evil soaked into the soil of the South. Not just in the obvious sense of its living legacy of genocide, slavery, and every other form of white supremacy. I don’t doubt that’s the root cause in some mystical sense — I remember the old joke that it’s no wonder America is such a mess when the whole fucking place is built on an Indian burial ground.

But there’s something else here too. It’s in the literally oppressive atmosphere of humidity. It’s in sun-blotting Snow White forests, where the permanent clutter of dead leaves makes death omnipresent no matter how much obscenely fecund life (usually kudzu) grows above them. Why else would so many towns and landmarks be named after Hell and the Devil? This is why Wovenhand, for all its adoption of modern and even foreign idioms, feels more like authentic Americana than all the bluegrass revivalists who’ve risen up like weeds after the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack took off.

DEE captures that specifically Southern dread so well I was more than a little shocked to learn he came from Denver, which I’m sure has its own evil atmosphere in all that killing frost and wide, yellow plains that leave you totally exposed. It’s certainly got plenty of the same dark history — some of the first lyrics on the album are “Still livin’/On Indian land.”

All the same, he evokes the cursed earth of the South better than any Southerner, and I think that’s just what he set out to do. There’s Western imagery in his music, but the folk idiom he recreates in his own image is deeply Southern. Call it “country-western” all you like, all white American folk music comes from white Southerners, just as all other American music comes from Black Southerners. DEE even named one of his records Secret South.

And yet, this most American of artists has found his greatest fame in Eastern Europe. All the video interviews I found of DEE had him talking to some Slav or another (except for one, subtitled in what looks like Dutch, suggesting his reach stretches across the continent). Maybe it’s the sense of the exotic that makes Westerns so popular in Western Europe. Maybe the bleakness of DEE’s vision of America is mirrored in the bleakness of the ex-Soviet Bloc, where the jungles are concrete instead of wood. Maybe it’s as prosaic as the story DEE tells of playing a show in Vienna and being invited to tour with Budapest band Musikás. Maybe, to indulge in DEE’s habit of speaking in Bible verses, it’s because the prophet is not without honor save in his home country.

Mosaic announces its unclassifiability from the first track, “Breathing Bull,” a high, eerie drone, played on folk instruments but not the kind of thing you’d hear on any other folk album. Then Wovenhand moves to the opposite side of the musical scale for the house-rattling bass of “Winter Shaker.”

The unsettlingly unintelligible whispers on the third verse do nothing to lighten the mood. Wovenhand’s work here is a perfect example of the band’s commitment to combining old and new, electrically thrumming bass and a folk instrument that’s unidentifiable but so clearly steeped in tradition it might as well be a Medieval hurdy-gurdy.

“Twig” is an equally good of example of that fusion, and of Wovenhand’s other central contradiction between the comfort and terror of faith. It opens with a crash (the breaking of the eponymous twig?) and a heavy metal drone, first low-, then high-pitched. When we move into St. Ambrose’s prayer, a new, organlike sound comes in, taking us to church, as the man said. But DEE complicates the straightforward piety of Ambrose’s words with his haunted, haunting delivery, distorting his voice both electronically and naturally, stretching out syllables like “day” and “night” until he becomes an almost supernatural presence.

Most of these album reviews put me through a miniature dark night of the soul where I worry the record’s not as good as I thought when I agreed to write about it. And almost every time I hit one track that assures me it’s exactly that good, or better. For Mosaic, that track is “Elktooth.”

It gets off to a slow start, ringing bells and chimes and laying down the melody on organ or accordion. But then in comes DEE on electric guitar. And then Ody Garrison on drums, a chilling, irresistible beat somewhere between military march and heavy-metal headbanger. And then DEE’s voice, quavering but full of conviction:

A double minded man
A double minded man
A double minded man

DEE describes his writing process like this: “Music I make up all the time around the house. Lyrics are hard for me. I have to…I pray for lyrics, that God would give me lyrics. And He gives me maybe one word for a whole month. Just one word. And I will write this word down, and then, maybe later, two months later, I will look again, I would look at this word, and all of a sudden, a whole song connected to this one word.”

It’s easy enough to see that process in “Elktooth.” DEE found a biblical phrase — in this case, from James 1:8 — and a song grew from it. Who is this double-minded man, and what does it mean for him to be unstable in all his ways? The result is Dylanesque in its evocation of a vivid character through murky imagery:

He is a tooth tapper
Dressed in cold
As told to the gods of old,
Arranging his words
In a controlled burn.

After the fury of “Elktooth,” maybe it’s inevitable Wovenhand would give listeners a breather, and that’s what they do on “Bible and Bird,” an instrumental that would fit comfortably onto any run-of-the-mill folk album. And then, slowly, they build up the fury again.

“Dirty Blue” begins with a strumming guitar, then lets in the drums and a frantic sawing on the fiddle, and both instruments become increasingly frantic as DEE continues repeating

There is a sorrow to be desired
To obey sorrow’s desire.
There is a sorrow to be desired
To obey sorrow’s desire.

until they finally drop out, just leaving DEE’s voice to draw out the second syllable of “desiiiiiiiiiiire.” Where most of DEE’s lyrics are surreally obfuscated, you don’t have to look hard to find something deeply personal here:

All we move by the Book of Numbers,
I’m held together by string.
I hear not the voices of others.
The bells of Leuven ring.
Fear not the faces of brothers
I’ve come apart it seems.

By this point, well into what would have been the second side of a vinyl record, you might think you know what Mosaic’s about. But Wovenhand still exists to unsettle us, and so they unsettle our expectations too. “Slota Prow/Full Armor” opens with one kind of dread, a subtly creepy fiddle solo full of the room noise of a haunted house, poised somewhere between Prague and Little Rock. And then, like a blow to the head, in comes the blast of Garrison’s monstrously distorted drum and DEE’s equally electrified voice, somewhere between song and spoken word. When he takes a breath, you can almost hear the hideous croak of Aphex Twin on “Afx237 v.7,” better known as the soundtrack to “Rubber Johnny” the previous year.

And then it gets darker, adding industrial clangs and frenzied beating on some unidentifiable instrument. (As you might have guessed by now, it’s frustratingly difficult to find any information on just what Wovenhand is playing, which I guess is just another sign of their cult status.)

And then DEE begins speaking in tongues. Not the offensive faux-Hebrew of the most charlatanly leaders of the Pentecostal Church, but a patchwork of the languages he learned from his European fans. It’s easy to miss, since the brain always looks for the familiar, and until I looked up the lyrics for this article, I was sure I could hear English phrases rising out of the unintelligible swamp, “Endevik saferen seduc” turning into “Us suffering as we do.” On “Deerskin Doll,” he’s even nice enough to give us Yanks a Bulgarian lesson: “‘Vashene osh miashte’ means yes.” (If Google Translate can be trusted — so probably not — it actually means “Your washing is still going on,” but it’s the thought that counts.)

After that, he launches into “Full Armor,” drums and accordion changing the mood completely. For the first time on Mosaic, the fear of God doesn’t inspire helpless terror but righteous conviction, and the track sounds like DEE leading the heavenly hosts into battle, “in the helmet of His salvation,/With His belt of truth,” tremolo or no tremolo.

Just as “Twig” paired new music with medieval lyrics, “Deerskin Doll” incorporates a medieval melody into a new composition. It’s such an earworm it’s no wonder it endured so many centuries. Wovenhand combines this age-old melody with some of the most heart-thumping instrumentals on the album, fiddles building and building in intensity until a bass and drums take over to dial it up even higher. DEE keeps up with the band, holding his notes in the final verse with a control that belies his untrained, folksy rawness.

Wovenhand makes another rug-pull on the closer, “Little Raven/Shun.” It opens with some of the most obvious studio trickery on the record, looping the piano track backwards and forwards, then settles into what seems to be a nice, sedate little melody. And then that drone starts creeping back in, followed by bass and metronomic percussion.

“Drone” is also an accurate description of DEE’s vocal on the “Shun” half of the track, possibly drawing on his Eastern European influences. He doesn’t quite talk, and doesn’t quite sing. Instead, he zigzags each syllable up and down the scale, strings following behind him like a heavy reverb. (On a more personal note, it also played into one of the most thrilling moments of synchronicity in my cinematic life. I spent one Halloween night in high school watching Nosferatu on Netflix, but, disappointed with the official score, decided to spin this album instead. I was rewarded with DEE bellowing “Shunnnn” for the first time lined up perfectly with the smash cut to Nosferatu watching Helen from across the street.)

And that’s the disturbing note Mosaic ends on, cutting off the music midphrase, one final slap in the face to anyone looking to religion for simple comfort. DEE has found something darker and more entrancing there, and we’re forever blessed he decided to share it with the world.

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