The Howling Hex is the latest incarnation of one of the most enduring and prolific mavericks of the US alternative rock scene, Neil Hagerty. He raised a few eyebrows in the past; while in the incendiary Pussy Galore with Jon Spencer (of Blues Explosion fame) in the mid eighties, he helped produce songs with titles such as C**t Tease, Kill Yourself and Asshole, as well as recording a full cacophonic cover version of the Stones‘s Exile On Main Street.
After Pussy Galore disbanded, Hagerty became one half of avant noise duo Royal Trux, a band that maintained the more experimental side of US guitar rock in the nineties while contemporaries Sonic Youth and Pavement became more accessible (and consequently, successful).
It’s fair to say that Hagerty has stayed on the fringes of US alt-rock, and his latest project is as unlikely to catapult him into the mainstream as ever before. It’s experimental, more so than his rock outings with the ‘Trux, with the production now notched down to distinctly lo-fi. Samples and studio experimentation have replaced straight drums, guitar and bass, and tracks veer from traditional song structures to dissonant soundscapes.
123 contains tracks that appeared on the 500-copy limited edition vinyl albums Introducing The Howling Hex, Section 2 and The Return Of The Third Tower. There’s 23 tracks in all, but few last much longer than two minutes. This, coupled with the rough and ready, semi-improvised production, lends itself to the impression that Hagerty doesn’t mess around – he gets stuff down and moves on.
Hero is a mixture of samples, strange noises and random poetry reciting, like a modern version of The Beatles‘ Revolution No 9 (but mercifully shorter). Most of the tracks sound half finished – Pretty and Juniper Tree just fade out, seemingly half way through a verse. Most tracks sound semi-improvised and shambolic.
More conventional tracks Breakaway and Rock-A-Doodle-Doo feature female vocalist Lyn Madison, and are apple pie country rock, but side by side with the avant garde posturings of Bird To Mutt, they sound more like an arch pastiche. Pastiche or not, however, they remain light relief from some of the more intense soundscapes which become pretty unlistenable after a while. The tracks which are somewhere in between song and soundscape are the most enjoyable, such as the scratchy If You Can’t Tell The Difference, Why Pay Less, and the wonky, groove-based Catalytic Converter.
As a whole, the album is a chaotic hotch potch, bursting with ideas and the odd haphazard pop hook. It’s an intriguing listen, but file under ‘experimental’ – this is probably not what you want on your stereo when your mum comes round for dinner. If you don’t have this category in your record collection (or even aspire to), the chances are that 123 isn’t for you.