[sic] Magazine

The sound of the underground – Bark Psychosis’, Hex revisited.

The sound of the underground – Bark Psychosis’, Hex revisited.

Bark Psychosis’ landmark album Hex is well known to many musicians and post rock historians. Yet to the wider public it remains something of a hidden gem. Only a niche group of discerning listeners discovered Hex on its 1994 release and it took until 2017 before there was a reissue. 1994 was an odd moment for music. Established Grunge acts still dominated the American scene but had lost that element of surprise. Releases such as Superunknown, Vitalogy, and Nirvanas MTV Unplugged did little to set pulses racing. Other ‘alternatives’ such as Becks Mellow Gold, REM’s oddity Monster and Jeff Buckleys Grace were still corporate behemoths. In the UK Parklife and Definitely Maybe ignited the Britpop movement. There was a distinct feeling of change in the air.

With elements of dub, jazz and noise rock, and lyrics evoking a sense of urban dread, Hex fit precisely nowhere into these established narratives. I only knew that I loved it. Hex is a flickering, pulsing, restless sleep of an album. It is famously known for garnering the first use of the expression “post-rock” (by Mojo critic Simon Reynolds) and yet sounds nothing like the groups we would commonly associate to that expression today. Melody Maker compared Hex to Talk Talks landmark Spirit Of Eden but the latter had come out six years previously, as had the A.R.Kane debut, Sixty Nine. There may have been a tenuous East London, ‘experimental scene’ (Daniel Gish was in Disco Inferno prior to Bark Psychosis) but one can hardly call it a movement.

So where did Hex come from and why was it important? We asked post-rock guitarist and fellow fan yellow6’, Jon Attwood.

(Jon) Occasionally a musician or band comes along who changes the way you listen, or the way you think about creating and listening to music. Having come from a punk/post punk background, then moving back in time to Stooges, New York Dolls and Velvet Underground, my own music had been very song or riff based. In the early 90s I started to hear some new music which changed the way I thought about playing the guitar. This included bands such as Tortoise, Flying Saucer Attack, God Machine, Spacemen 3 and Bark Psychosis.

Hex was one of those rare albums which I played over and over. Following on from the single A Street Scene, it’s a stunningly crafted album and, ultimately from my perspective, one with some inevitable finality* to it.

That’s interesting. Can you say more about what you mean by ‘finality’?

(Jon) In the few years Bark Psychosis had been together, their sound had progressed with each release, and Hex seemed to have refined those elements to a kind of conclusion, or at least turning point. Similar to my long standing obsession with Velvet Underground, part of the fascination was that Bark Psychosis brought together elements which didn’t naturally fit together to create something new and different. However, like VU, it seemed that these different elements were likely to pull it apart. I may not have fully recognised it at the time, but they were disintegrating. By the time of the tour to support Hex, Daniel had departed, returned, and John had left, with a stand in bass player used on the tour. Following Hex, there was just one further release under the band name, before the long hiatus, and this was a 12” single ‘Blue’, essentially a Sutton solo release. Sutton then took up the Boymerang name and became a key player in the early drum and bass scene.

Jon I find the parallels that you draw between Bark Psychosis and the Velvet Underground very insightful. Both bands exhibited boundary pushing creativity as you clearly explain and were highly impactful as a result. They are also two bands with a relatively small following that ended up inspiring many to go and make music themselves. What was it about Bark Psychosis that made you sit up and take notice?

(Jon) The first Bark Psychosis record I recall hearing was ManMan. From a guitar playing perspective it showed something different from the standard riffs and bare chords, and a shift to creating sounds and moods or emotions. For Bark Psychosis, this continued through the immense Scum 12” and finally the long player. Aside from Graham Sutton’s muted vocals and guitar mixing clean arpeggios and soundscape/drone sounds, there was John Ling’s dub infused bass lines, Mark Simnett’s jazz/punk drumming and Danial Gish’s keyboards. The other aspect I found fascinating was the use of repetition. Similar again to VU, BP like their contemporaries, utilised repetition, and slow shifts in patterns, in retrospect taking influence from minimalists such as Reich. I knew a bit about what was going on behind the scenes with the band and the delayed release of the album, as my neighbour’s daughter knew Mark. I remember waiting in anticipation of the album release, pre-ordering it from my local Our Price store, rather than have to wait until I could get to the nearest indie store.

Bark Psychosis

Band publicity still

For me, Hex is constantly shifting in tone with abrasive passages morphing into becalmed beauty and vice versa. I recall listening to constantly, as if it were one, 52 minute piece of music. I don’t think I ever learned the track names for ages. It was just Hex to me. Did you mind the challenging aspects and why do you think it worked so well as a whole?

(Jon) Hex’ sound is actually very clean and pure. The material which made it onto the album was on the lighter side of Bark Psychosis. Noisier material such as Reserve Shot Gunman and Murder City were omitted. It was a very different record in many ways from previous singles. I think the bands disparate elements came together so perfectly on this album, from the dub-infused bass lines, jazz punk drums, and ambient keys right through to precise guitar arpeggios. Space is as important as the sounds themselves, and even those louder sections retain a great clarity of sound, something other bands didn’t seem to accomplish. Coming from a background of punk and post punk, and the VU, the harsher elements blended with the soft and melodic, were similar to say European Son melded with Femme Fatale – the same disparate elements, but in the same song. To me, these elements worked perfectly and didn’t break the mood of a particular song, sounding like natural shifts within the same mood, like a grey day with brief storms and sunny spells.

So you picked up Hex on release day, having followed the bands earlier output. Were you happy with the resultant record?

(Jon) The music suited me at the time perfectly, having recently moved into a single room and spending more time alone than I was used to. This album was played many times in the evenings in the dark creating a mood of darkness yet hope. ‘Eyes and Smiles’ demonstrates this well with the drum and bass giving a repeated pattern propelling it along, and the section of discordant guitar, followed by the breakdown and return to the repeated drum pattern, gradually building with the chiming guitar. Perfect for late night listening. Over the past year, with the pandemic, I have taken to going for evening walks, and found that this is a good accompaniment for a walk in the day, even if in a rural town rather than a desolate city.

Hex is, for me, one of those records that creates something around itself which seems bigger than it should. Many records are good to listen to, have nice sleeves, get played a lot, and never fail to disappoint. But others seem to be something a bit more. Maybe it’s that, for me, I can’t detach it from everything around it. What it meant for me at the time, what influence it had on me, and the later back story I have found out about over the years. It’s not the only album that means a lot to me in various ways, but there is still, after all these years, a certain indescribable feeling I get when I see the cover, or hear the music. Every time I hear certain songs, I’m transported back to a certain place in my past, and the feelings that go with it.

Is there anything you would change about Hex?

(Jon) Nothing at all. Look, to some degree it was slightly disappointing at the time that there was a single from the album, released beforehand. Singles often tend to stick out being a bit different, and often get listened to more than the rest of the album. Back then, ’A Street Scene’ stuck out a little because of that, having a familiarity the rest of the material didn’t, but over time that has faded as I always listen to the album as a whole, and it but doesn’t spoil the flow of the album. To me, Hex is one of those albums which needs to be played through in one sitting. It’s like it tells a story of a time and place and, the word that keeps coming back, a feeling. It’s a record you can feel as well as hear.

[sic] thanks Jon Attwood for his time and reflections upon a landmark release for underground music. As this classic album feature evolved, Jon and I made the decision to focus on the situational impact of Hex rather than the ‘post rock heritage’ aspect which we felt was already well serviced by other publications. Not least of those is Jeanette Leachs ‘book Fearless – the making of post rock. which we recommend if you want to delve further into that scenes ancestry.

Graham Sutton now works in production and engineering, contributing to artists such as British Sea Power, These New Puritans and A Place to Bury Strangers. All images are from Bark Psychosis social media and or the album itself and are not for re-use.

yellow6 released Silent Streets and Empty Skies last year inspired by Jons own experiences during the pandemic. He also has a collaborative project coming for release this June. JARR’s An Echo In Her Skin is available now for preorder.

yellow6 Bandcamp

JARR Bandcamp

Bark Psychosis Bandcamp