Live in concert, Sixteen Horsepower come on like a team of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers, like something that walked out of the dark woods in a Flannery O’Connor fever dream.
Lead singer David Eugene Edwards unleashes a voice that seems unmatched with his wiry frame, a tremulous and terrifying baritone that sounds like its carrying a thousand years of experience and, thus, authority. When he sings about the infallible word of the Father, even the most willful agnostic will tremble. Listening to the band is like approaching a hot stove until the heat singes your eyebrows. A roiling tempest of guitars, Edwards’ own array of squeeze boxes, mandolins, and guitars, the reverberating bass…they create a sound as brilliant and focused as a hot poker.
On “Secret South”, their strongest album to date, they have finally transferred the shocking sound of their live show to a studio recording. Previous efforts (“Low Estate”, “Sackcloth’n'Ashes”) never quite captured that intensity, although they are perfectly worthy recordings that feature some of their best songwriting. On “Secret South”, the Horsepower boys expand their musical horizons without straying far from that distinct, Southern, gothic-rock sound. A haunting, bluesy rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” retells Pilgrim’s Progress with the voice of someone still on a dangerous road. They find a bright, uncharacteristically joyous sound on “Nobody ‘Cept You”, reminiscent of Red Rocks-era U2.
“Clogger” and “Cinder Alley” return to their signature rock-and-roll earthquakes, declaring visitations of the divine. The singer exhorts God to “give my conscience a pounding,” and as we wait for God, we are assured that “the dark can only hinder/it will not hold you back.” Even as they cast their scathing gaze about at evildoers in the world, they include themselves among the guilty. And, here more than on previous recordings, the grace of God is everpresent and possible: “He waits patient, in our prayers unprayed,” Edwards promises at the end of “Just Like Birds”.
But their strength is still to somehow communicate a powerful argument that God exists, God is displeased with what is happening in the world, and that he will, in the end, bring everything in line with his will. “He is beyond the shadow of your doubt and mine,” Edwards affirms. “He is no man’s opinion/He is truth divine.” The truth told boldly is a frightening thing, but it is also the best hope for the humble, for the meek, for the penitent.
Sixteen Horsepower is a musical sledgehammer, unapologetically devout in their faith, yet crafting their convictions into poetry, a persuasive sound, and artful honesty.
Outstanding tracks: “Wayfaring Stranger”, “Splinters”, “Cinder Alley”
Five words or less: A fierce, fearsome, grim, gospel-rock masterpiece.