The name may have changed, from The Howling Hex to Neil Michael Hagerty & The Howling Hex, for reasons unknown, but the music is as consistent as ever. When he was half of Royal Trux with Jennifer Herrema, Hagerty carved out a very particular sound – scuzzy, Roky Erikson guitars, relentless rhythm, and general degradation. Nothing fancy, but plenty of amp fuzz, dissolute atmosphere, and strangely enticing lyrical mantras. It was an irresistible formula with songs that seemed simple, and simply refused to go away. Listen to ‘Juicy, Juicy, Juice’ from Royal Trux's Accelerator, which more or less repeats the title over and over, then try getting it out of your head.
Denver is the latest instalment in a labyrinthine world of Howling Hex releases, and Hagerty continues the theme with an ever-changing line-up. This time he has actually produced a concept album, with a geographical focus along the same conceptual lines as Sujan Stevens' Ilinois and Michigan, but musically inhabiting a very different United States. Songs are themed around Denver, Colorado. 'Colfax West' references just one end of Colfax Avenue, the USA's longest street. It is a particularly wild track, played faster than seems feasible, and carries warnings about “conmen” and “coconut latte”. 'Canyon' is presumably nearby Waterton Canyon. It has a killer riff, and lyrics that seem to reference its recent closure to stop visitors taking selfies with bears.
'Mountain', makes the Rockies sound like the coolest place on the planet, with riffs carved out of limestone slabs. 'Random Friends' is a full-on, kerosene-fuelled, band rock out, and few bands do it nearly as well. 'Lookout' is much melancholy, with the lead guitar playing a liquid, meandering solo line instead of thrashing out its sounds. Hagerty sings about feelings, and feeling lost, contriving to sound something like early Neil Young while his guitar chops the song into small, shimmering pieces.
'Guided Missiles' is a stand-out track with a chorus that repeats the title, Royal Trux-style, on a climbing phrase that leaves you wanting more. The album ends with ‘300 Days of Sunshine’, a weather forecast-cum-advert, based around a rollicking tune and lyrics about spending time outdoors which have odd Blur resonances. It is like a heroine-addled, Western 'Parklife'. It moves through several different tunes, finding time for an extended xylophone and snare drum break halfway through, before returning in renewed bursts of dirty psychedelia. It is messy, unexpected, charming and alarming in equal measure – just like the album, and possibly Denver itself.