Hex A.D. – Astro Tongue in the Electric Garden
The brainchild of multi-talented vocalist and guitarist Rick Hagan, HEX A.D. is back with their fourth release following “Netherworld Triumphant” in 2018. The Norwegian band continues to develop its doom-charged sludge-tinged classic hard rock sound. This being only the second record including the addition of organist and mellotron controller Mags Johansen, the band has moved out of its firm roots in heavier doom-influenced hard rock and ventures into a more varied mix of blues, progressive and psychedelic as well as continuing their hard rock and doom-y roots. Initially only a session drummer for previous albums, brother Matt Hagan on drums has been promoted to full member and Arry Gogstad rounds out the rhythm section on bass.
The jaunty opening track “Elle est Mort” makes clear to the listener that any preconceived notions of what they may hear from a hard rock outfit are to be turned on its head. Featuring two acoustic guitars – one simply playing mostly rhythmic broken chords while the other plays a bouncy French-sounding melody – it prepares the listener to be unprepared. The first single, “Astro Tongue”, begins with an atmospheric Theremin-ish spooky sound from what can be assumed is simply a guitar played unconventionally. This soon explodes into mellotron-dripping smoky blues rock a bit heavier than you might hear from King Crimson or even Rush. The organ gets a great solo break around the 3:20 mark letting Mags Johansen’s craftsmenship shine.
Ending side one is heavily Deep Purple influenced “The Day the Sky Exploded”. Beginning with a riff Tony Iommi would be proud of before diving into a chugging riff reminiscent of “Holy Diver” with mirroring organ is the best song to blend the progressive and hard rock elements. As the song progressives, guitar and keyboard breaks bring memories of Yes, ELP, and the more recent Opeth, famous for seamlessly blending both progressive rock and death metal in their earlier years. When the guitar stands alone at 5:42, a picky and perfectionist producer may try to eliminate the distortion bleed from the line, but leaving it in gave the song the right amount of frenetic chaos and character that is expressed by the title.
The real standout is “Moonsoon Suite”, the three song ender of side two excluding the bonus track “Grace and Pain”. Second single from the album, “Hawks & Doves” begins the collection strongly, introducing you to the story of propaganda regarding America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It evokes Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” both thematically and structurally jumping back and forth between sparsely instrumental verses and a bombastic interlude separating them. After a bit of back and forth, everything goes double time and erupts into pure instrumental fury.
The second of the suite, focusing on the soldiers in jungles of Vietnam in the thick of battle is “Old Bones”. It evokes “Another Brick in Wall” in its tremolo picked intro, giving way to a feeling of being of stranded out in the middle of nowhere before jumping into Rainbow style riffage with, once again, Opeth jazz-tinged lead guitar breaks. There is even some Hendrix “wah – wah” licks thrown in near the end. The final track of the suite, “A Stone for the Bodies Not Found” laments the fallen and ponders the philosophical aspect of tragedy. Dissonant guitars and the sinful tritone blasts away but slowly softens to a single simple guitar line over subtle pondering lyrics. Great atmospheric keyboard motifs interspersed with the vocals displays a powerful evocative ending to the album.
While I wish the production was clearer, the musicianship is well displayed and there are no shortage of memorable hooks and riffs that are so catchy you can’t help but hum along. Hex A.D. have grown a lot over the years and seems to have solidified their unique brand of progressive hard rock during this and their previous release. I look forward to their next heavy psychedelic trip.
Songwriting: 9 Musicianship: 8 Memorability: 7 Production: 7