One of the big things I look for in music is a sense of being taken elsewhere, of stepping aside from the real. I work a stressful tech job, and the next best thing to ditching my desk and marching off into the woods is music that makes me feel like I’m adrift in an ancient forest. This means I’m a big fan of ethereal, folksy influences in my music. Esben and the Witch‘s Older Terrors established itself as one of my favorite records ever, and I enjoyed Hexvessel‘s first few releases for similar reasons. 2016’s When We Are Death felt very different and didn’t evoke that otherness their earlier records did, but I still enjoyed it. Naturally, when Steel announced he was busy and asked if anyone would like to take the new Hexvessel, I jumped at the chance.
The most immediately noticeable thing about All Tree for those familiar with the band’s back catalog is that, sonically, this is a significant retreat from When We Are Death‘s 60s groove rock. Largely gone are the catchy distorted guitar leads, replaced with the atmospherics from their earlier albums, built from acoustic guitars, folk instruments, and occasional distortion more for texture than riffs. It’s hard to pin a genre tag on, but they draw heavily on classic psychedelia and post-rock among a raft of other influences. Compositionally it feels most like their first album, Dawnbearer, which means the songs are fairly direct, short, and cohesive, and there are none of the wandering, multifaceted 10-minute epics from the No Holier Temple era.
This is something of a shame, as Hexvessel are at their best when crafting the auditory equivalent of meandering through the deep woods stumbling upon strange things. “Masks of the Universe” from Iron Marsh actively referenced John Muir, who said “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” and that sense of wildness and wonder was exactly what the music felt like. My first reaction to All Tree then was “where’s that evocation gone, this sucks!” After spending a lot more time with the album, my opinion has softened somewhat. Many of the tracks, shorter and less explicitly occult though they are, still succeed in the same way, and ultimately this still feels like a Hexvessel album. Matt McNerny’s calm, emotive vocals, frequently with harmonies by Marja Konttinen, remain a standout (though after “Woman of Salem,” I’m surprised and disappointed Konttinen doesn’t get any lead vocal slots), and the rest of the band’s folk ensemble continues to be used to good effect.
The album opens with a chant which, as far as I can tell, is a translated version of a Finnish traditional (c. 16th century?) prayer to the spirit of a bear which has been hunted, apologizing for killing it.1 It’s a neat touch, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. The following track “Son of the Sky” is thematically linked and one of the best songs on the album, with a heavy, driven rhythm section perhaps retained from When We Are Death, paired with a catchy, subtly unsettling melody. Several other tracks with a similar drive also work, particularly the upbeat folk dance on “Wilderness Spirit.” Slide guitar lament “Birthmark” and the almost dirge-like final track “Closing Circles” are also great, showing off Hexvessel‘s emotional range, with the latter the best vocal performance on the album.2 The master is a spacious DR11, giving heft and contrast to the amplified instruments when they’re used.
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this album to all comers. At its best it never quite attains the lofty heights of their previous work, while a number of tracks outstay their welcome and could have been trimmed or cut entirely. If you’re not into their style, this isn’t the record that will change your mind. If you’re not acquainted with Hexvessel, this isn’t a bad place to start, though Iron Marsh is better. If you’re a fan of the band wondering if the new album is up to snuff, the answer is yes: it’s a worthwhile listen with a number of strong tracks.