The Horse and Other Weird Tales by Jess and the Ancient OnesRelease date: December 1, 2017
Label: Svart Records
With nine tracks clocking in at around thirty-five minutes, The Horse and Other Tales, the third album by Finland’s occult rock magi, picks up where 2015’s Second Psychedelic Coming: The Aquarius Tapes left off, both musically and thematically.
The Horse and Other Tales: the title of this, Jess and the Ancient Ones’ third album, refers to the type of story made famous by the American pulp magazine Weird Tales during the 1920s and ‘30s. You’ll no doubt be familiar with H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos, still probably the most famous and controversial Weird author around. There’s a suggestion of Lovecraft’s extraterrestrial alien gods, The Great Old Ones, in Jess and co.’s name and Lovecraft himself appeared on the cover to Second Psychedelic Coming as part of a collage of celebrity faces, evoking Peter Blake in a darker response to Sergeant Pepper’s. Even if you’ve never read famous stories like ‘The Call of the Cthulhu’ or ‘The Dunwich Horror’, you’ll have come across references to them in bands like Electric Wizard or Blood Ceremony and in countless black metal bands. Well, The Horse… certainly takes influence from this kind of fiction, but it’s just one reference amidst a heady cocktail of pop-/counter-cultural and literary references within this short, punchy album.
The Horse… continues Jess’ use of spoken word passages from esoteric sources, following excerpts from Charles Manson’s deranged social critique put to effective use on Second Psychedelic Coming. ‘Death is the Doors’ opens onto a quote from Rod Sterling’s famous TV show The Twilight Zone – “You open the door with the key of imagination” – which itself mixed horror, science fiction and fantasy as does Weird fiction. The quote neatly highlights one of the band’s main concerns, the subjective inner realms of psychedelic, occult and astrological experience, as emphasized by another quote from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors to Perception appearing after the first chorus. As you might expect, this track – as many of Jess’ are – is about Huxley’s fascinatingly hocus concept of the Mind at Large, human consciousness opened by psychoactive drugs and therefore unfiltered by the brain and social convention. Musically, ‘Death is the Doors’ makes for a strong and memorable start: a choppy, upbeat track that longs for a release “into the beyond” after life, with a shuffle, jazzy feel to the drums, effective call-and-repeat backing vocals, and a neat double-time shift on the chorus.
Other stand-out tracks include ‘Your Exploding Head’, an upbeat celebration of psychedelic indulgence, again with memorable backing vocals, and the catchy rocker ‘(Here Comes) the Rainbow Mouth’ with its tastefully intertwined blues guitar and Hammond organ lines, and stereo-shifting vocal ad libs. Final track, ‘Anyway the Minds Flow’, continues the band’s obsession with violence opening with a recording that discusses Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon in 1980, and his well-documented literary motivations: “he was literally living inside a paperback novel, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.”
I must admit that I’ve always seen Jess and the Ancient Ones as a slightly lesser entity in the occult rock scene, without the distinctive sound and catchy songs of Blood Ceremony, the traditional metal power and incendiary twin guitar lead of The Devil’s Blood, or the heavy weirdness of Jex Thoth. But I now realize that that’s unfair. Jess and the Ancient Ones have always occupied the psychedelic, trippy end of this scene, drawing more from the music of the 1960s than the hard rock of the ‘70s. And the ‘60s influences are especially apparent on The Horse… There’s a danger with this kind of music of falling between two stools: songs not quite solid enough for the rockers, and ambient sounds not trippy enough for the psych-heads.
Well occasionally, on other releases, Jess’s songs can be found fighting their way out of that gap. But that’s not the case on The Horse… Effects-wise the guitars, here, are often surprisingly clean, distortion-free, and much more sober than other psych, stoner bands with which Jess and the Ancient Ones are sometimes associated. And this is the album’s greatest strength, allowing space for the neat chord patterns and taut melodies of the guitars and relatively low-key organ, the solid and expressive rhythm section, and for Jess’ vocals, all to coalesce and shine. It is somewhat ironic that – given the album’s title, which invites us to ‘read’ these songs as weird tales – it is these distinguishing qualities of cleanness and sharpness that make The Horse… sound a little less strange than previous releases. But it means that the compositional complexity of tracks like ‘Anyway the Minds Flow’ becomes apparent, with the strangeness of certain guitar passages achieved more through the playing than the production.
It’s no secret that occult rock is in a very healthy state at the moment, experiencing what we could call either a revival or a resurgence, following the sub-genre’s inauguration through pioneers like Coven and Black Widow in the late 60s and early 70s. A brief roll call reads as following: The Oath, Lucifer, The Devil’s Blood, Jex Thoth, Blood Ceremony, Wolvennest, Purson, Witch Mountain, Mount Salem, Sabbath Assembly, Orchid, Dead Witches. I could go on. It’s a scene that’s been slowly growing in the US and Europe for over two decades now, and which shows no sign of abating. Wire magazine, that bastion of fiercely intelligent and broad-minded music writing, gave over several pages to the history of occult rock in 2016. A highpoint perhaps was Jinx Dawson bringing Coven back to the road last year, with great success, playing alongside the legions of newer bands that owe her huge musical debts. (Black Widow reformed between 2007 and 2014 with sadly less lighting of beacons.)
It’s easy to mock the Occult Rock Revival as uninspired bands spicing up their retro ‘70s rock with a few skulls and pentagrams, and bringing nothing new to the altar. In some cases you’d be right. But I’m a big fan of this stuff and feel the need to stick up for it. Firstly, there’s a feeling that the original wave, Coven, Black Widow, Alex Sanders, etc., should have been bigger, mainly for their talent and originality. But also for the fact that so many giants – Zeppelin, The Stones, even Bowie – sold their souls, embracing the devil at least temporarily, and escaped the Faustian bargain to cash their cheques: in other words, doing something similar to great acclaim while the originators unfairly lagged behind in relative obscurity. So the current revival helps the devil’s underdogs become rediscovered and to receive the credit they deserve. I, for example, had heard of Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls prior to hearing the newer wave of bands, but may not have grown to love it so quickly without the likes of Blood Ceremony lauding it.
I also think that, yes, the occult rock tag can be quite restrictive – like any tag – and provoke laziness and uninspired pastiche. But the broad range of ideas – aesthetic, philosophical, musical, religious – that occultism and esotericism suggest provides an especially varied and fertile space in which musicians can explore, necessarily working hard to achieve the appropriate atmosphere without descending into self-parody. Jess and The Ancient Ones, with their energetic, thematic magpie-ing from various media, always ensure this balance is struck. Also, it is encouraging that the Occult Rock scene provides a space for women to achieve prominence in a still largely male-dominated style, that they are more-often-than-not fronting the band especially so. Take my roll call above, for example, and you’ll find a woman behind the mic of each one. Jess has a distinctive voice, while clearly drawing from ‘60s influences such as Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. Assuming that she is Finnish like the rest of the band – there’s little about her available online – the Americanization of Jess’ vocals is quite clear with its slurrin’, lispin’ quality, especially prominent on the quieter, ballad ‘You and Eyes’, for example, but without feeling too false or affected. Yet there’s also a wonderful rolling of Rs on ‘Your Exploding Heads’, which sounds somehow more quintessentially Finnish. I’ve unfortunately never seen her and The Ancient Ones live, and I am very keen to hear how well these songs from The Horse… come across at a gig.
If I had slight reservations about Jess and the Ancient Ones before, then I am happy to have them dispelled with The Horse… While I still feel the band have yet to deliver a masterpiece, it seems like they have found their distinctive musical voice, spoken amidst a hubbub of occult rock languages and we can look forward to hearing it tell further weird tales in the future.