Hexvessel: When We Are Death

Third album from Finnish cult rockers.

Hexvessel When We Are Death album artwork

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“Cult” is the right word for Hexvessel. They have the air of a quasi-religious sect who meet in the forest at night for ritual incantations and sacrifices.

The charismatic leader is singer-guitarist and all-round prophet, seer and sage Mat McNerney, a displaced Brit who wound up wandering across Scandinavia before settling in Finland with his current outfit, the hexed vessel for his search for magic, meaning and cosmic enlightenment.

Like many ex-metallers, McNerney has sought solace in softer sonics, although there’s still heaviness here – a harshness and coldness of atmosphere that captures the chilled awe you might experience in a nocturnal woodland as hooded strangers attempt to commune with nature and a dark, unknowable universe.

On this, the band’s follow-up to 2012’s No Holier Temple, there are traces of prog and folk, freakbeat and drone rock, while artists as disparate as King Crimson and The Doors have been invoked by listeners attempting to make sense of this splendidly unclassifiable noise. Throw in Roxy Music and early Spirit, Pendragon and Pavlov’s Dog if you like: Hexvessel evade easy definition. Really, comparisons are less useful than colours, and Hexvessel synthesise previously unseen hues on When We Are Death.

A vision quest filled with wonder and baleful energy.

Transparent Eyeball is the thrilling neo-psychedelic opener with the runaway rhythm, swirling organ and feel of a mission statement, all prog spasms and an anthemic chorus that’s like being caught in the eye of a particularly powerful hurricane. ‘It’s hard to feel the sunlight when you’re down on your knees,’ duet McNerney and backing vocalist/percussionist Marja Konttinen,_ ‘Drunk on the wine of religion’s tongue,’_ conflating the ecstasy of worship and sexual abandon.

Earth Over Us is pagan folk with a psych-pop catchiness, subliminally referencing musical flashpoints past, from late‑60s San Francisco to early-70s Birmingham and beyond. When I’m Dead finds McNerney in booming, stentorian mode, conjuring Satanic forces, while Drugged Up On The Universe has a jagged bass and organ riff to underpin the ultimate narcotic verb conjugation exercise: ‘I am drugged up, you are drugged up, they are drugged up.’

There are respites from the onrush of sound (the gently sashaying Cosmic Truth and mournful Mirror Boy), and they’re no less compelling than the louder numbers. On the latter, McNerney cries, ‘Can you see into the future? Do you know the day that I will die?’ When We Are Death may not offer any answers, but as vision quests go, this has all the breathless wonder and baleful energy you could want.

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.