Deep, Dark And Compelling, If Uneven
Hunter Benedict “Ben” Shepherd, the man behind Soundgarden’s low end since 1990, is no stranger to depth or darkness. Now he’s delving back into the shadows with his latest solo project, In Deep Owl, released under the acronym HBS. The album leans heavily on dark acoustic folk and blues to set its spectral tone, but takes a few detours into the realm of rock where the artist has his roots.
The opening track “Stone Pale” showcases HBS’s knack for eerie, folky minimalism that is simple yet richly nuanced. Think Lead Belly’s guitar work with modern lyrical sensibilities. Spare vocals and a dark, droning minor chord progression are carefully textured with back up harmonies, ghostly whistling and gently plucked arpeggiation that culminate into a quiet Southern Gothic nightmare. The track fades into an atmospheric soundscape of frogs croaking ominously, which segues into (and plays throughout) the powerful, percussion-driven “Koda.” Here’s where the album’s direction begins to veer. The strange frog pond passage gives the promise of a concept, a cohesiveness of vision, on which the artist ultimately defaults–but what a moment.
The transitions to rock aren’t entirely unseemly, as songs like “Koda” and “Collide” carry folk and blues elements, but “From the Blue Book,” for instance, stands out as a wild, Waitsian romp packed with berserk electric guitar, a funky, menacing bass line and tap dancing. Likewise, “Keystone” features bold brass accompaniment and symphonic guitar solos that weave in and out of one another. Subsequently, In Deep Owl’s interesting divergences can make it feel a little uneven from track to track. However, HBS wraps it up cleanly by returning to where he began with the grim folk ballad, “The Train You Can’t Win.” The final track is a cycle, beginning with fast fingerpicking, then dropping tempo into a meditative moment with ghostly harmonies that sing, “Hearts are holes / And everybody knows,” before speeding back up to a frantic pace that finally rings out into silence.
In the end, the glue which really bonds In Deep Owl is not a concept or genre, but HBS’s uniquely resonant voice and cryptic lyricism. Thom Yorke once complained that no matter what lyrics he sings, his angelic falsetto makes them sound sad. HBS’s dense, low-humming bass sounds primal when matched with the blues, as if sung by a Tuvan throat singer, with the power to reverberate through the deeper, darker chambers of the human heart. In Deep, indeed.