I think it’s fair to say that WHITE HILLS are something of an acquired taste. With their songs clocking in at an average of somewhere around the 11-minute mark, and with a musical MO that demands that you turn it up, really loud, the New York 3-piece certainly aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. This isn’t to say that you won’t find catchy hooks and pop sensibilities in their tunes, they’re laden with them, it’s just that their normally buried amongst unrelenting sonic assaults and whirring atmospherics. I’d describe them best as spacey experimental noise rock, somewhere between Raw Power Stooges and Lemmy-era Hawkwind, and they’ve been happily bursting innocent eardrums since their debut ‘They’ve Got Blood Like We’ve Got Blood’ back in 2005.
Unlike my unfortunate neighbours, I can’t get enough of bands like WHITE HILLS, and so I was delighted to catch them live on one of their rare trips to the North East. Given their niche status I wasn’t expecting a large crowd, but just enough have turned up to ensure a vibrant atmosphere in the tiny Head of Steam basement, which is up there as one of my favourite venues in the city.
After a couple of false starts due to sound technicalities, WHITE HILLS finally take the stage amid a flurry of pink and blue lighting whilst being veiled by a choking smoke machine. The room feels simultaneously open and claustrophobic, which I’m sure is precisely the desired effect; an audience willingly at the mercy of the band’s sonic attacks.
I was half-expecting them to open with something that falls more on the woozy ethereal end of the WH spectrum, to ease us in, so to speak. This, however, was not the case. From the moment the first notes hit it was made abundantly clear that for the next few days I was going to be enduring at best a fractured relationship with my ears. The noise is incredible, with some of the heaviest bass I’ve ever come across threatening the foundations of the building, while the screaming wah-wah bounces chaotically off every corner of the room. It gets a bit too much for a few older folk towards the back, who, after commendably enduring the first 4 or 5 tracks, politely slip out, never to return.
Most of the songs have been cut down to between 4 and 7 minutes – a good decision – any longer and there’s always the risk of alienating your audience. The most impressive thing about WH is the level of control over they have over their sound, deliberately harnessing feedback yet making it seem completely spontaneous.
The shrieking vocals, shared between frontman Dave W and the bassist (she calls herself Ego Sensation, and she’s cool as fuck), work more as extra instrumentation than their usual verse/chorus function, so there’s certainly nothing here to sing along to, but it works wonderfully well. In short, I got from WHITE HILLS exactly what I was expecting, an hour and a half of unrelenting sensory overload with deafening guitars, and I left feeling thoroughly satisfied.