Hexvessel came into my life in 2012 and filled a void in my soul I didn’t even know existed. You see, I didn’t have any Finnish psychedelic forest folk in what passed for my miserable existence, and only when I tasted of its rich goodness did I realize how much I always subconsciously hungered for it. Their No Holier Temple opus was one humdinger of a hippie rock saga, steeped in moody, languid tones and absolutely in no hurry to get anywhere. It unspooled at its own pace and took the listener on a weird but very rewarding journey. Naturally, I was eager to get another platter of the same kind of spacey, dreamy throwback rock, and expected When We Are Death to provide that particular fix. The Fates had other plans however, as Hexvessel mutated into something much less folksy and foresty and much more 60s rock oriented. This leaves me desperately wandering the streets searching for my Finnish psychedelic forest folk hookup, and let me tell you, things aren’t looking good on that front.
As soon as opener “Transparent Eyeball” popped out of the speakers, it was apparent the band was onto something new. It’s straight up, groovy, trippy rock wed to the sound of the 60s, and though it gets a bit silly at times, it has a weirdly appealing vibe and a good natured charm. It has the elements you’d expect from filthy hippie-core: fuzzy guitars, butt-tons of Moog and Hammond organ abuse and more than a few happy commune clap and chant alongs. It’s not markedly different than what other throwback, 60s-inspired acts are doing but it does have a lot of flavor and a genuine swagger all its own. “Earth Over Us” offers more of the same but it’s even more stripped-down and hypnotic with engaging vocals and an leisurely pace. It sounds like something from the soundtrack of a Beach Blanket Bingo film and it’s definitely faithful to that era.
When the title track appears, it sounds like something The Doors could have penned after one of their lost weekends and you can almost see the flower children bobbing and swaying to the bouncy music amid fields full of butterflies and happy little trees. It isn’t until “Cosmic Truth’ that Hexvessel dips back into their classic sound for a somber, airy ballad full of emotion and mushroom magic. It’s a beautifully simple and elegant tune showcasing everything I love about the band and it makes me bitter they moved away from this particular style. This is what made me love them and dammit, I want a steady supply of this stuff! Luckily they see fit to hand out more on the equally enchanting, Jethro Tull-esque “Mirror Boy” and the Uncle Acid-like “Teeth of the Mountain.” Other interesting moments appear with “Green Gold,” which sounds eerily like a collaboration between Pearl jam and David Bowie, and the catchy, trance-like closer “Shaman You” which could be an outtake from a Ghost album.
Things aren’t all free love and herb gardens however, as “Drugged Up on the Universe” suffers from a silly and annoying refrain which hurts an otherwise interesting cut. “Mushroom Spirit Doors” also stumbles, featuring awkward and abrupt transitions that make the song feel half-baked. And though “Shaman You” has a catchy coolness, the repetition of the central vocal hook ultimately hurts the song.
The transition from long, spaced out odes to hallucinations and pharmacology in favor of short, tight-ish rock songs works better than I would have expected and the band’s writing chops are still front and center on much of the material. I may miss the old style, but I can’t deny the successful transition here. Mat McNerney’s vocals still weave their spells and compel attention, and the guitar-work from he and Simo Kuosmanen effectively capture the sound of the 60s as they switch between minimalist noodling and raucous, fuzzed-out rock riffing. Kimmo Helen’s keyboards are omnipresent as he does his best to channel the ghost of Ray Manzarek and season the music with 60s goodness. His subtle use of trumpet and violin adds a wonderful nuance to the material without ever feeling gimmicky. This is an interesting group of musicians and at times their odd compositional structures remind me of Hammers of Misfortune, which is far from a bad thing.
Sure, I wish Hexvessel remain unevolved, but the new incarnation is pretty righteous in its own way and I’m willing to forgive them for their failure to feed my forest folk habit. If you want to hear something unusual and adventurous with both feet stuck in the distant past, you may be very pleasantly surprised by When We Are Death. It ain’t heavy, but it could still be your brother.