The occult metal band Hessian is one of Portland’s more storied musical organizations. Anchored by the songwriting, guitar playing and singing of Angus McFarland, Hessian could be called “throwbacky” or “old school,” but there’s a dismissiveness about both of those labels that feels wrong. Make no bones about it, Hessian does indeed allow inspiration of the “Old Ones” (your Thin Lizzys, Deep Purples, and various waves of British heavy metal) to characterize the music. At times Hessian can be totally hilarious — but it’s not meant to be performative. It’s just who they are.
Hessian formed in 2008, a partnership between McFarland and former co-front person and guitar player Salli Wason, who had previously worked together in the band Hatchetface and the Vipers. They released an EP in 2010 and a full-length, Bachelor of Black Arts, in 2014, but during those five years Hessian were mostly a live act, shredding up regional stages and making a name on a national run.
Since then, Hessian has undergone a big shakeup. Wason is no longer with the band, and former drummer Tim Webber and bass player Michael Bryant have moved on as well. In their stead are Zoey Haab (Imipolex, Stone Tools, Devoured Exuvium) on guitars and vocals, Michael Pearce (Feral, Apollyon) on bass and Greg Souza (Shabti, Stone Tools, Feral, Apollyon) on drums.
But the dark-hearted, raw and plainly joyful essence of Hessian remains. A super-pleasing blend of classic metal, occult themes, melodic songwriting and loving attention to detail gives the band’s second full-length, Mercenary Retrograde, a warmth that metal isn’t always known for (particularly if it was written post-1986). Where some nu-, speed- and death-metal bands might obsess about minor chords, McFarland sometimes veers off into big, friendly majors that both change and embrace the game in 2018.
That warmth doesn’t necessarily show up in McFarland’s lyrics, though. Witches, devils and “unholy delights,” hellhounds, sacrifices and death wishes mingle on these eight tiny otherworldly fables. McFarland has a deep knowledge of the various branches of occult thought, and uses those images and callbacks to create a cohesive story, rich with meaning. To wit: the album ends with the track, “Manos, The Hands of Fate,” which will light up a specific set of '90s kids based on pop culture reference alone. It reminds me of a person who learns a second language and is able to crack jokes in their newly adopted tongue — hard to master, yet indicative of a unique person with a particularly interesting capacity for wit.
Mercenary Retrograde begins with the track “I Wish I Was Dead,” a breakup lament couched in terms that make us think McFarland was dating a real hard witch at some point — he isn’t trying to hide a thing. While musically, Hessian sticks to classic metal riffs and song structures, the vocals are unique and call up a host of non-metal references: Robert Smith, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, all of their little idiosyncrasies that emerge from their nontraditional voices show up on Mercenary Retrograde, as McFarland pushes through our assumptions about what a “metal voice” is supposed to be. In Hessian’s world, a classic metal voice doesn’t have to be piercing, and it doesn’t have to adhere to pop sensibilities just to appease some douchebag in a Black Sabbath t-shirt.
That’s where the self-referential humor comes in. The band possesses the familiar language of ‘70s proto-metal, but it also likes to spend a few minutes lurking in the shadows of what listeners are expecting, and then blow those expectations away with a silly gust of wind. “Saint Leopold” is a great example of this, as McFarland ruminates about a love-worship situation while the band goes a little wild, moshing musically and destroying everything in its path. It’s kind of a big “fuck you, you big softie” approach to a love song, and it’s fun as hell to listen to. It gives the listener the sense that McFarland is laughing at himself as much as he is singing about very serious things.
It’s no secret how underground-popular Hessian has been in Portland for the last decade. If you’re paying attention, you’ll spot Hessian t-shirts and little gold lapel pins on all kinds of folks, from the woman ringing you up at the Hilltop Grocery to the dude you just met at a party. Yet McFarland and company still manage to make this album into something special, something you’d want to hear in a moment of darkness or self-doubt. It has golden guitar tones and soaring key changes and all the stuff you love about classic metal and the L.A. sound, while still mucking around in all that intense warlock shit. You don’t really get it, but you can't help but find it all intriguing.
Derivative? Sure. It has to be to achieve its goals. But is it also steeped in cunning tradition, almost made in sly tribute more than in self-aggrandizement? Absolutely. It’s fucking awesome on a purely metal-as-fuck level to welcome Hessian’s studio work back to the streets of Portland. If this is what this town is about, we’re doing just fine.
Mercenary Retrograde | by Hessian | album release during Waking Windows | September 22 | Sat 9 pm | Geno's Rock Club, 625 Congress St, Portland | https://wakingwindowsportland.com