By Chris Anderson
And here I was thinking that this rash of musician deaths had finally subsided and then came home today to the news of Merle Haggard’s passing. Along with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Merle ushered in a new era of country music, known as “Outlaw Country”. Shedding the Nudie suits and clean-cut image that defined Nashville, Haggard proved that you can be a long-haired, hard-livin’ asskicker and still be a star. And, unlike most of his modern-day peers, Haggard was the real deal – hell, he even did time. His own cache of hits are far too many to list – 38 #1’s, and countless more that came close. His 1983 album with Willie Nelson, Pancho And Lefty, was the best that country had to offer in the 80’s, and their recently-released collaboration, Django And Jimmie, proved again that there was a certain kind of magic that happened when those two got together. Perhaps his most-remembered song is the goofy “Okie From Muskogee”, which painted a portrait of what life was like for someone like him in the South back then, while “Mama Tried” is one of the finest country songs ever written. Merle’s death is a massive loss to country music, and the world in general.
Merle’s impact didn’t just affect country music. His influence spread all across the canvas. You can hear it in the early 70’s work by the Stones, and the 90’s alt.country movement. You can hear his influence in The Replacements and you can hear it in Dylan. His work directly influenced the Grateful Dead, who performed “Mama Tried” for most of their run, and it can be heard in the Byrds.
Another place you can hear it is in the work of Hellsingland Underground. Hailing from the north of Sweden, HU is one of the truest and purest of all the rock & roll bands in the world. I first discovered them three years ago, with their third album, Evil Will Prevail. I instantly took a shine, praising them in these very pages as the best damn band on the planet. In the time since, I’ve gotten to know the rest of their work and have become friends with some of the guys in the band. They always promised that a new album was on the way and, while it took a few years to get it together, I am thrilled to say that Understanding Gravity, their fourth long-player, is finally here. And it smokes.
Kicking off with “Earth’s Gonna Shake”, this record immediately proves its point. One of the things I love about this band is how they take familiar vibes – from southern rock to Motown to country – and form a sound and style that is uniquely their own. Charlie Granberg writes from the heart, his songs full of characters and experiences of a colorful life and, simply by listening, you are instantly transported into his memories. Whether they are real or imagined is of no consequence. It’s all in the beauty of the portraits his words paint.
Every so often, Charlie likes to throw down a cautionary tale as well. As with the title track from their last album, “Earth’s Gonna Shake” illustrates all the evil that there is in this world and how it will continue to be the driving force of mankind. He dispenses with the “unless we…” formalities, though, because he’s a realist. That realism extends to his more personal songs as well. Rarely does he take a particular stance in a lyric, but rather tells a story as it is – it’s his voice that reveals the emotional depth, and his is one of the great voices. This is especially apparent in the acoustic lament, “How Lonely It Must Be Being You”. A touching reflection on a once-vibrant friend who lost the point, this song should hit home to everyone because we all know someone who fits this mold.
Theirs is a very distinct sound and style and, while there might be a folk ballad here and a psychedelic jam there, they don’t tend to stray too far from their established sound. And that’s a good thing. This is a band that knows exactly who they are and what point they are trying to make and, thanks to their chops, they drive that point home like a sledge to a spike. There is no fear of some surprise electropop album, or them jumping on some musical bandwagon. What you are going to get, with every album, is an updated version of what they do best – energetic, literate songs that make you want to boogie. It’s within that framework that you see growth, and growth is evident all throughout this record, from the trombone-infused “As Dreams Go By” to the Mellotron-drenched prog of “Reincarnated The Same As I Ever Was”, one of the best things this band has ever done.
Perhaps the most defining aspect of the Hellsingland sound is the twin guitar work of Mats Olsson and Peter Henriksson. Two powerhouse guitarists, they finish each other’s sentences like few ever dare. When they trade eights, as they do on “As Dreams Go By”, it’s clear that each is a force to be reckoned with. When they harmonize, well, let’s just say that the world is a little more perfect for them having found each other.
All of this is held together by the rock solid rhythm section of drummer Patrik Jansson and bassist Martin Karlsson, the owner of the greatest beard in the known universe (sorry, Rev). A band is only as good as its rhythm section and theirs is one of the best. They play in the pocket but aren’t afraid to throw down an exclamation point when the moment calls for it. Rounding out the lineup is newcomer Thomas Petterson on keyboards, who shows up ably, playing his ass off on a variety of instruments, and really elevating the band to a new level.
But it’s the songs that matter the most. And this band has songs.