Folklore

by Sixteen Horsepower (2002, Jet Set Records)

16 Horsepower is a band branded by the singular vision of David Eugene Edwards.  His is a dark, apocalyptic world where the flesh and spirit are locked in constant struggle, where Edwards howls out his fractured visions couched in droning banjos, fiddles, and pounding rhythms.  What people often miss when they focus on Edwards, however, is that 16 Horsepower is a band that constantly revises their sound both through the addition of members—the addition of guitarist Steve Taylor prior to the recording of “Secret South” brought an enormous shift in sound—and in the case of “Folklore”, the subtraction of the same.

Taylor’s gone this time out, but don’t think for a minute that means the band has gone back to their earlier sound.  The removal of Taylor has simply made room for long time bassist Pascal Humbert to step into a more dominant role.  Fans, especially those who have seen the band live, have known for years that Humbert is a monster on the bass.  But what they may not know is that Humbert is a skilled multi-instrumentalist in his own right, and a man possessed of a musical vision every bit as powerful as Edwards’ own.

Between efforts with 16 Horsepower, Humbert released a solo record as Lilium which sadly never made it’s way to these shores.  Lilium is a stark and beautiful record, dominantly instrumental, all about tone and atmosphere, and that atmospheric sensibility has bled into 16 Horsepower’s latest.

“Folklore” is a much quieter record than any the band has released in the past.  Instruments are predominantly acoustic and the songs are given room to stretch and breath.  Running through it all is a dark and vaguely ominous atmosphere, a slow rumbling tone in the background.  Many hear that it’s a quiet record and assume that it’s somehow “safer” than previous releases, but if anything the opposite is true.  Edwards’ voice fills the spaces with its wandering, haunted spirit and slowly burns its way into your consciousness.

As you might guess from the title, the bulk of the material here are traditional folk songs.  Hank Williams and the Carter Family are represented alongside a string of traditional numbers from around the world (plus four cuts written by the band).  Much to the band’s credit, if you didn’t already know the songs going in, you’d never be able to tell which were the originals and which were the covers. It seems a strange thing to say about an album composed largely of cover songs, but “Folklore” further cements 16 Horsepower’s reputation as one of the most original and vital acts in the world today.  As has been the case with all of their releases, “Folklore” is absolutely essential stuff.

Written by Chris Brown.