16 Horsepower is a rather odd band. In a certain way, it’s christian rock. In a very particular way, that is, because I think it’s a specific brand of christianity we’re talking about, marked by a certain ethnic quality. It’s the southern preacher’s faith, a last remnant of the bastion of puritanism America was built on. One can feel the prairie in these songs, the ramshackle little hill towns and the eerie gaze of the small community fixated on any new-comer. The christian references are intrinsic to the singer’s background more than part of the band’s agenda, which makes the whole affair amazingly honest and pleasurable. The music is not a conversion attempt, having a rather more anthropological quality, based more on the echoes of faith than the ideal of it.
I discovered 16 Horsepower at a time when I was reading Nick Cave’s first published novel “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, a brutal, delirious book set in a very isolated hillbilly community gathered around a certain sect of christian founders, written from the perspective of a mute, psychotic boy. I won’t go into details, it’s a good read, so I’ll recommend it as a side-note. But the way the music clicked with the book was truly a rare event of serendipity. Meditative passages, full of emptiness and as dry as discarded corn husks, followed by bloodthirsty, possessed moments of beastly anger, a certain attitude of hostility controlled by an ideal of righteousness, this music is formidably human, and conveys moods and feelings which are, in my experience, unique to this band.
If there’s joy to be found in these songs, it’s the joy of travel, the joy of “spreading the word”, a certain communion with the landscape’s presence in the notes, mediated by the feeling of faith, the awareness of being created by the same forces. The way I see it, this form of faith is not an uplifting one, but quite the opposite. Oppressive, strict, austere, this deity has very little patience with humanity and strives to purify it by test and trial. This attitude streams forth with David Eugene Edward’s simultaneously powerful and shaky voice, his tremendous intensity speaking volumes of his youth traveling as the son of a preacher. Every word seems to be part of a sermon, he even uses the “lingo”, a hard to define quality of the phrase which makes it feel like a continuous metaphor, and all of this without actually sounding preachy. This is all a very personal experience for the singer, it’s not meant to draw anyone in, it’s just meant to display and to explain.
This is why the music itself dares to go places I’ve never heard christian rock outfits tread in before (not that I listened to a lot of them, mind you, but I guess what I’m trying to say is Creed will never, ever, ever have the creativity and strength to explore these spaces). The songs are rather simple affairs, cadenced and slightly repetitive, partial to the old folk way of making music, a tendency highlighted by the integration of violins, accordions and banjos into their instrumentation, while still staying quite surprising by the always unexpected use of dissonance, or rather scales which sound slightly broken, slightly… off, taking a little while to get used to. It’s really quite a lot like listening to good world music – there’s that same feeling of wonder and oddity. Or maybe it isn’t, and I’m just that alien from the whole idea of a life and a work revolving around faith. Either way, this music provides a very interesting perspective on a non-musical subject, while definitely remaining of exquisite quality. Keep an open mind and enjoy!
P.S.: The David Eugene Edwards solo interpretation of the Secret South song “Straw Foot” sounds a bit better in my opinion, that’s why I chose it instead of the album version.