Heston Rifle – 20 Strings EP

Heston Rifle
20 Strings EP

While in the middle of listening to/reviewing this disc, I crossed paths with a quickie blurb review of 20 Strings in a decently well-known print publication, and I heartily disagreed with the reviewer’s assessment of Heston Rifle as “moody and jangly math rock with violin.” Obviously, the moody violin part is dead on, but with the exception of a few short segments in the 9 ½ minute “Quad,” I can’t find a whole lot here that would classify this entire 30-minute EP as ‘math-y’.
Still, I’d imagine that 20 Strings is a pretty decent equivalent to what early Don Caballero garage practices would have sounded like with a violin player, and I mean that in a very, very good way. Heston Rifle does a nice job of mixing up the song pieces here, which is cool. The music does have an ’emo’ tendency to go from throbbing to beautiful and back again, but the way the band does it keeps it from seeming formulaic, I guess. The quiet, more lulling song fragments seem to be ‘led’ by the violin, as if the other noises only exist to support its sound. However, quick as a finger snap, songs turn around into bass-and-guitar driven pieces, with the violin easily shifting from centerpiece to being a quiet flourish (or in some cases, being completely non-existent). Take “Black Box,” for example: the song trolls along on a sad violin piece lifted by an ‘active’ bassline before switching to a guitar bent worthy of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” in seconds flat. Best of all is the fact that this ‘switching’ doesn’t create nearly as jarring an effect as I would have expected it to.
“Burning Copper” is a much more ‘standard’ indie composition, complete with a violin drone that pushes the driving bass and fuzzed urgency of the guitars more than the angsty vocals alone would have. In the context of the other material, this track stands out as an almost frenzied listen, creating a nice segue into the brief-math/lotsa-emo/violin-and-seaweed-chanty “Quad,” which is about the most schizophrenic track on the album (just trust me on the seaweed chanty part). Still, the most outstanding track on the release is the live version of “Mike Found God,” which manages to successfully mash the elements of the three previous tracks into one very intense listening experience. I guess it’s fitting that I reviewed 20 Strings this week, as the vocals to “Mike” alternately scream, “FOURTEEN! TWELVE!” over and over again. Little League World Series, anyone?
‘Instrumental’ isn’t quite the term for Heston Rifle. There are vocals – some are recorded tape loops (i.e. Godspeed You Black Emperor!), while most of the others are so intentionally low in the mix that they really only matter when someone is screaming. Still, the effect here is pretty breathtaking. Compared to Mogwai or GYBE, 20 Strings is pretty lo-fi, as everything was recorded in one weekend, which shows in varying degrees on the disc. The vocals seem way too low in the mix on the studio recorded stuff (although I’m sure this was intentional, some spots would have sounded a little better with more voice), and the violin seems a bit too muddled in the mix at times. Also, one of the guitar lines early in “Mike Found God” is a little more ear-piercing than I think it was meant to be.
In all seriousness, that’s just about all I could find to complain about with this release, and it’s all washed away by the reminder that this is indie rock I’m talking about here. I’d be nitpicking WAY too much if I didn’t say that Heston Rifle has put together a damned impressive half-hour package in 20 Strings. If this band ever does a full-length disc, it should be mind-blowing. Extraordinarily recommended.