Wovenhand: “Ten Stones”
Has there ever been a musician more frequently– or more accurately– compared to the Old Testament prophets than David Eugene Edwards? It’s doubtful; certainly Nick Cave has a certain feverish ferocity about him, and Johnny Cash undoubtedly took up a certain prophetic mantle with his apocalyptic hymn “The Man Comes Around,” but Edwards stands alone in his fire-and-brimstone fervor, his unwavering and unrelenting conviction in the awful grace and mighty vengeance of the Divine. So if it sometimes sound like he’s repeating himself, it’s because he is– his message of God’s coming judgment, and of the utter futility of man trying to defy him, hasn’t changed a bit from his first album up through his most recent, Ten Stones.
So potent and overwhelming are Edwards’ no-nonsense evangelical convictions that they sometimes overshadow the variations in sound and style that have marked his career. He made a name for himself as the leader of the seminal rock group 16 Horsepower, creating alt-country gems shaded by some of the Bad Seeds’ gothic punk tendencies, simultaneously sinister and riveting, but it wasn’t until he struck out on his own, recording under the name Wovenhand, that he finally unveiled the fullness of his talent and vision. His masterwork so far is 2004’s spooky, unsettling monument to God’s sovereignty and might, Consider the Birds, a carefully-layered and tightly-constructed album that sounded positively haunted by the Holy Ghost. It was an album that conveyed its truth not through blunt force, but through subtle textures and compositional sophistication, a road Edwards followed even further on the follow-up, Mosaic, a so-so record inspired by European folk sounds.
But through all the ups and downs– mostly ups– of his career, Edwards has never delivered an album that delivers on the raw, pummeling rock-and-roll intensity of his live shows– or at least, he hadn’t, up until the release of Ten Stones, a record that matches Edwards’ lyrical incantations of God’s power and might with bristling energy and furious, thunderously potent guitar rock. Which is, of course, a slight mixed blessing; certainly, since these songs emphasize sonic vigor and bone-crunching fury over texture or complexity, it’s not quite as deep or as hypnotic as Consider the Birds, but its sheer forcefulness, which easily surpasses that of 16 Horsepower’s intensely rocking Secret South, makes it one of the most disarming and disorienting statements yet of Edwards’ creative vision. It is, in all its blustering force and primal rage, an album that falls just short of equaling Consider the Birds, making it one of Edwards’ career peaks thus far.
And of course, Edwards’ music is so uniform in its spiritual intensity, his songwriting so thoroughly serious and focused, that even his quieter moments tend to have the bone-shaking violence and ferocity of his rock songs, which is indeed the case here. There are some acoustic numbers here, and in fact some very beautiful ones, but, nestled between the primal outpouring of the opening song “The Beautiful Axe” and the swaggering, angry rock of “White Knuckle Grip,” they blend into the fabric of the album, feeling more like extensions of Edwards’ prophetic intensity than respites or diversions. (And prophetic intensity is exactly what it is– just listen to the primitive chanting and violent guitar work of “Kicking Bird,” where Edwards sound like he’s lost in a holy trance.) Indeed, there’s only one track here that comes close to being a palette-cleanser or a bump in the album’s cohesive flow, Edwards’ bizarre calypso cover of “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” an existential love song that, with his untamed howl and gruff barking, Edwards’ can’t quite pull off as a vocalist.
It is, perhaps, telling that, when Edwards does return to the more textured feel of Consider the Birds on the ghostly ballad “Kingdom of Ice,” it feels like a welcome change of pace from the harsh rock of the other songs; then again, there’s no denying that the scalding, white-hot guitars and pounding drums make a perfect match for Edwards’ lyrics, which, as usual, testify to the smallness of man and the utter majesty of God. And listening to Edwards sing, in all his holy conviction and deadly seriousness, can be absolutely intoxicating, hypnotic in its power and its ring of truth. And that, ultimately, is what has always made Edwards’ music a gift to us, and a prime example of excellent religious art, music that takes creativity and beauty almost as seriously as Edwards takes his faith.