Refractory Obdurate is a difficult album to understand. That's not due to Wovenhand's music being impenetrably weird, but rather their apparent lack of contemporaries or predecessors. Sure, frontman David Eugene Edwards' previous band 16 Horsepower did similarly dark, unorthodox things to traditional country and folk music, but even Wovenhand's earlier material never fully embraced the apocalyptic darkness that cloaks Refractory Obdurate in delicious mystery. Stream the new album above, via Spotify.
If you're looking for clues as to where this new sound comes from, Wovenhand's signing to Deathwish Inc., a label started by Jacob Bannon of Converge, would be a good place to start. Converge's Kurt Ballou is a longtime fan of the band, but Refractory Obdurate feels like the first album he could've actually had a hand in producing. But even Deathwish, whose personnel have no doubt been heavily involved in the making of this album, struggle to use less than seven adjectives to describe Wovenhand's sound in its press release:
"Wovenhand cannot be described in traditional terms. Their sound is an organic, weavework of neo-folk, post rock, punk, old-time, and alternative sounds. All coming together as a vehicle for David's soulful expression and constant spiritual self exploration. Sometimes sad and sorrowed and at other times uplifting, Wovenhand are always unforgettable in spirit and sound."
Hyperbole is usually the bread and butter of press releases, but this time, the language used feels like an honest attempt at giving fans a "tl;dr" summary of Refractory Obdurate, which seems more and more defiant of genre-based pigeonholing with each passing song.
If you're still skeptical of this album's enigmatic qualities, let's try unpacking just the first song of Refractory Obdurate. "Corsicana Clip" begins with a bare-bones, 4/4 drum beat that gives the song a galloping feel, adding in a high-pitched acoustic guitar riff that seems traditional enough until it keeps descending to the point where it seems like an intro to a folk metal song. But instead of continuing to descend to the doom-y depths of, say, an Opeth song, it circles back and continues to loop the four bar phrase. A foreboding-but-bright electric guitar joins in, as does Edwards' voice, which seems to come through a megaphone. His lyrics are worthy of a separate analysis of their own, as they are undoubtedly the most cryptic element of a very cryptic album:
"In the hollow of his hand, delicate listener, my tender giver, my burning lamp stand. Oh I must be off, off your rock. I've said my piece, in a spider's hive. I've got a junkman's chance, to bear him down, to stop his clock."
Symbolism clearly plays a big role in Edwards' writing, as does flipping a familiar phrase or two, and though it's not evidenced here, so does religious imagery (which also seems to define the band's Facebook presence). But, onward with the musical analysis of "Corsicana Clip."
The "chorus" (really more of a loose refrain) brings us a few mini-breakdowns before the gates are opened, and the aforementioned gallop becomes more of a sprint. Reverb and feedback infect the guitar tones, the previous drumbeat is quickened, and Edwards howls over the whole maelstrom like an apocalyptic preacher. A bevy of guitar loops are loosed on us, each adding new folds to the song's outro, until the beat drops out and we're left in a swirling pool of noise, slowly fading out.
That's just under six minutes of music, but contained within are a wealth of styles, effects and change-ups that seem totally incongruous when not experienced outside of Wovenhand's "Corsicana Clip." The rest of the album follows suit, if "suit" is taken to mean "the first song's totally unexpected blend of sounds," and in the interest of retaining your attention, I won't put you through play-by-play accounts of each song on Refractory Obdurate.
Make of the album what you will, but to me, its closest bedfellow is not a musical act, but an author. Edwards and Co.'s scorched-earth take on age-old styles of music is, in my mind, an unmistakable parallel to Cormac McCarthy's personal take on the "Western" genre. Like country and folk music, the style has been around for generations, but McCarthy became well-known for his famously bleak, violent imagining of the Western frontier that was unlike that of Sergio Leone, John Wayne and Zane Grey's prevailing stereotypes of the genre. On Refractory Obdurate, Wovenhand re-imagine the musical terrain of outlaw country artists and gothic folkies as something much more foreboding and dark. Retained are those genres' fear of and belief in higher powers, and some of their instruments (including a banjo-mandolin hybrid made in 1887), but at the end of the day, this is country and folk seen through the modern lens of heavy music.
Preorder Refractory Obdurate from Deathwish.