By Chris Anderson
Dave Ihmels: The Severe Angels
The DC-area music scene is an odd one. Sure, we have Go-Go and Hardcore, and we had the Arlington “Teen Beat”/”Simple Machines” bands of the 90s, but we’ve never really had that trademark stamp like New Orleans, Austin, Athens, Nashville, Seattle, San Francisco, etc. That’s not to say that our scene doesn’t thrive – in fact, it’s phenomenal – it’s just more scattered and stylistically diverse, and you really have to put in some legwork to discover local music. While I can’t claim to be an expert on our scene, I have seen a fair number of artists perform and have heard many of their albums. Some are quite pleasant while others are…not so. Every so often, however, my ears come across something otherworldly, something that makes me immensely proud to be from this area, something that tells me there is hope in this vast eclectic musical landscape.
I first met Dave Ihmels at an open mic, back in 2007. Like many performers at open mics, Dave played an acoustic set with a hard lean towards folk music, offering a mix of old chestnuts as well as a few original songs. Unlike many performers at open mics, it was clear that there was some sort of visionary spirit at play. Dave’s songs were subtle but very clever, and he is a hell of a singer. I recall having to take a couple of deep breaths when it was my turn to play. Over the years, we’d occasionally bump into each other and I’ve seen him play from time to time. He’s always on-point, always inspiring. Like me, Dave is a ridiculously prolific songwriter. Unlike me, he doesn’t release much of his music, The Severe Angels being his second album, after 2008’s Expandable. I knew this album was on the way and, while I was looking forward to hearing it and perhaps writing about it, I’ll admit that I was probably expecting something pleasant, at best. I had no idea….
Simply put, this record is outstanding. Even more than outstanding….it is astounding. It’s a sly, layered piece of work, the kind of record that hits you like a sucker-punch when you first hear it. And then, as you continue to replay it, the different layers slowly reveal themselves. The first time I heard this was through headphones (the recommended method of hearing this) and my initial reaction was the same as it was the first time I heard Kid A by Radiohead, or the new Beauty Pill album. My mind was blown. Dave said he was going for “art”, and this album certainly confirms that. Conventionally-structured songs sit alongside quirky, left-field numbers, all of which are accentuated by the sort of spaced-out synths and ambient cacophonies that bands like Gong and Hawkwind made entire careers of.
Kicking off with the celestial overture, “Walk Out”, Dave quickly proclaims that he has “many demons to fight, in my head” – and then proceeds to spend the next ten songs fully engaged in that war. By the time we reach the closing track, it’s not entirely clear who is victorious, but that’s not quite the point. It’s more about the journey and, in the end, this battle between peace and madness is one hell of a ride.
The album’s undisputed highlight comes early on, in the form of “Sulamith”, one of the best tracks I’ve heard from anyone all year. With a feel that is reminiscent of a cross between Burt Bacharach and Tsunami, and featuring a spine-tingling vocal appearance by the exquisite Celeste Starchild, this is a song that never fails to elicit goosebumps. I could listen to “Sulamith” all day. But then I would miss out on the rest of this album. Soooo…onward!
“A Murder Of Crows” sounds like what you would get if Leonard Cohen made a record with Robert Pollard – it’s one of the weirdest songs I have ever heard, and I say that with the highest of praise. And then there’s the Neil Young-meets-Automatic-era-REM of “Rubber Mask”, a perfect “track four”, if there could be one. “High Voltage Touch” manages to do, in three and a half minutes, what U2 spent the entire 1990s trying to accomplish, and pulls it off spectacularly. Closing out “side one” is the tripped-out “I Am The Moon” which calls to mind, at times, Prince…if Prince happened to come from the same planet as Ash Ra Tempel.
Continuing the pattern of light/dark, “side two” opens with the beautiful “Look Through My Eyes With Me”, a track that My Morning Jacket would kill to have written. Next up is “Otto”. Now, when you have a song called “Otto”, you know you damn well better deliver. The gritty, folky blues of this track does not disappoint, the chaos of the story perfectly accentuated by producer Dave Mallen’s frantic guitar solo. Next up, Dave gets funky on “Prince Eugene” which reminds me of what would have happened if “Lunatic Fringe” had been a Talking Heads song. Yeah….it’s that cool.
Next up is “Wires”, the sort of freak-folk that calls to mind Devendra Banhart, and has a great, sleepy, late night feel, a breather after such an auditory whirlwind. This is one of three songs to feature the violin wizardry of Todd Baker, one of DC’s greatest talents, who lays down a haunting solo overtop of this spaced-out waltz. “I’m Not Not Tryin’” closes the album on a semi-detached psychedelic note, as the war with the demons concludes with peace in madness.
Often when you have a super experimental album, it is at the expense of actual songs. I saw Dave’s album-release show at the Evening Star and, having heard these songs performed by just Dave and Todd Baker, they really hold up on their own. In fact, it would be neat if Dave were to also release an acoustic version of this album …or, you know, just burn me a copy of the demos 😉
Hear this album for yourself at http://daveihmels.bandcamp.com