A Journal Of The Dark Arts
With Valley Fever, Bakersfield, CA’s Hxxs dream of a new world, conjuring it into being with beat-ific communions and synthetic sanctified calls to arms.
If America is the land where the world goes in search of miracles and redemption, California is the land where Americans go. It is America’s America, the symbol of raw hope and brave (even foolish) invention, where ancient traditions and inhibitions are abandoned at the border. Its peculiar culture squirts out — on film and menus and pages and television beams — the trends and tastes that sweep the rest of the country, and then the rest of the world. If California broke off and dissolved in salt water, America would lose its seasoning.
– California: Is It Still America’s Promised Land, Time Magazine November 18, 1991
When Americans looked towards the stage on July 4, 1981, they saw a band that represented all that was sunny about “morning in America”—youth, summer, happiness, high school, fun, potential, harmony. The Beach Boys’ hits rewrote the frontier myth of Westward expansion as the “California dream.” On the west coast the sun was always shining, the bikinis were just revealing enough but not too revealing, and American prosperity, manhood, and good, clean fun were alive and well.
Just because Americans saw it doesn’t mean that it was actually there. In fact, the men singing about Fun, Fun, Fun and California Girls were a group of frustrated, constantly in-fighting middle-aged men, with a range of emotional, drug, and family problems. The two Beach Boys who had once had the most to do with celebrating that mythic American dream—Dennis the surfer, drummer, and sex-symbol, and Brian Wilson, who wrote the songs, were drugged-out shadows of their former selves.
– The Beach Boys, the War on Drugs, and the (Hetero)American Dream; Orkinpod.wordpress.com
California has long held the reputation of a Promised Land in the public imagination. From “The Land Of Milk And Honey,” for The Joads’ in Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath to the glitz-and-glamour of Hollywood; the fun-in-the-sun of The Beach Boys to the beckoning beacon of Silicon Valley in the 21st Century, California represents the aspirational quality of The American Dream. It acts as a shimmering mirage on the horizon of nearly Human privileged enough to lie on the other side of the horizon. And yet, when we notice a darkness, to paraphrase Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
Southern California is particularly divisive, with squalor and opulence living in close proximity. Consider Coachella – the modern day Rites Of Eleusis, bowing down and swearing fealty to capitalism and consumerism. For two weekends out of the year, a huge percentage of Earth’s most beautiful, most privileged denizens rock their spray tans and designer wares on white sands, beneath a radioactive sun. For much of the rest of the year, it is a barren wasteland, inhospitable to only the hardiest forms of life.
This dichotomy speaks not only to the schizoid reality of life in The Golden State, but existence in general, for most of the world, as dueling ideologies fight for our survival, as a species and as a planet.
This split is eloquently, but subtly, explored in Valley Fever, the newest offering from Portland-by-way-of-Bakersfield-CA’s Hxxs. Valley Fever grabs a trowel and unearths the underbelly and psychic schisms of Southern California, as a microcosm for “The American Dream” – a dream of self-sufficiency and freedom – a far cry from the current prevailing narrative.
When we last met Hxxs, before a much-appreciated rebranding, it was largely the project of one Gavin Neves, operating out of a sooty garage in Portland’s St. John’s neighborhood – a holdout from old Portland and our old stomping ground. Over the span of several excellent-if-a-bit-raw albums and EPs, Neves sweat and strained over a beguiling, puzzling array of electronic hardware – beat machines and analog synths, muscular and squalling; pure dystopia. In those days, Neves sounded like a struggling wizard, trying to control his manifestations, and also a frustrated street poet, dripping angst and ennui, sex and violence over brickhouse beats and acid squalls. It was the sound of frustration and of learning.
It only takes listening to about four seconds of album opener and standout track “It’s Calling,” to realize this is no longer the case. The powerful, trance-inducing, wooly bassline; scattered, slipshod beats; and ethereal vocals from Hxxs’ Jeannie Colleen is more Basement Jaxx than basement jam – full and rich, intricate and engaging, there is nothing remotely lo-fi about Valley Fever. This is a band at the top of their game, coming out swinging chains and bats with a battle cry to all the blackclad witches, wizards, and warlocks to come together, to dance and sing and fuck and RESIST.
There are two stand-out moments on Valley Fever that describe this battle cry most eloquently. One is “Seeing Things,” with its Terry Riley-like rainbow arpeggios and a gauzy reflection on certainty, or lack thereof, from Neves, which basically cribs a line from Radiohead’s “There, There,” off of 2004’s Hail To The Thief. While Thom Yorke’s exhalations invoked the dismantling and dissolution of community and individuality, while also railing against an Impostor In Chief, Neves’ airy refrain is a banner we can all get under. We can relate – we’ve all been living in freefall for most of this century.
Album closer “Wolf” is the other striking, standout moment, being a sonic doppelganger for The Knife’s anthem “Heartbeats”. “Heartbeats” comes from a better time, when we were all like “Fuck It, Let’s Dance”. Hedonism was our revolution – nihilism and postmodernism our benediction. This raised any number of somewhat warranted criticisms of the younger generation being “escapist”, “petty”, “superficial,” all the adjectives TwitterBots love to hurl at so-called Millennials.
While the mainstream may have thought we were just being childish and self-indulgent; drowning in narcissism, taking selfies instead of storming the ramparts – we’ve actually been DOING something. While no one was looking, scenes have been forming in basements, garages, and warehouses all over the world. Songs like “Seeing Things” and “Wolf” are the sound of a generation growing up, scrawling pop lyrics on tennis shoes and book bags, only to have those choruses become High Sorcery, when combined with wit, elegance, and pure skill.
Our rituals used to be ragged and sporadic. We are now focused, harnessed, fully in control of our senses and our minds. We represent the REAL America (and the REAL world), where people want equality for ALL and not just some. The political rumblings and machinations of this current regime are a distortion of how people truly think and feel, instead being the very loud, totally incomprehensible bellows of fundamentalists and zealots – the middle America version of ISIS. It’s not a movement, it’s a death twitch, for those who want things to “go back to the way things were”. When was that again, exactly? That’s not going to happen, as that system was faulty and flawed, built on exploitation for most of this world’s residents.
Valley Fever is here to take a stand, to remind each other and the Powers Of Darkness that we’re not going to just lie down and take it. We remember. We know how to think critically, reason, and calculate. Your days are numbered, until your vision comes to include the ENTIRE world, and not just the .0001% (that you’re most likely not a part of anyway).
Valley Fever is out now, digitally, via Bandcamp. Physical copies and tour dates are about to be announced, so make sure to click them social links and keep up with these talented sorcerers.
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Tune into every Sunday night/Monday morning for Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness @ Freeform Portland! Exploring the dark side of techno, hip-hop, shoegaze, metal, psych, folk, and soundtrack. You can listen to the archives online at mixcloud.com/for3stpunk.