Concept albums often seem to ride a dangerous road – too easy to marginalize of the story doesn’t carry, or if it’s too sentimental. Too easy to ridicule if the story takes over the music. Too easily misunderstood – and therefore run over roughshod by critics. Which is why it’s pretty refreshing to listen to Denver band Hi-Strung’s brand new effort “Malfunction.” Nine songs – more bits and pieces of lead singer/bassist/songstress Samantha “Doom” Donen’s interpretation of the inevitable effects of romance – strung together to tell a story we’re all way too familiar with.
Check out the title song: Hi-Strung – Malfunction
Doom has a long history in the Denver scene, having played with bands like Overcasters, Hexen, The Blackouts and others since moving here from Canada. Hi-Strung is her first self-driven project, and well-deserved. “Malfunction” is the first of (hopefully) many efforts – also a side effect of Doom’s period of recovery from a major accident a few years ago. The new record’s a fitting tribute to that recovery – solid, strong, haunting and unique.
Starting with the giddily and appropriately named “Happy,” this record travels down the rabbit hole of a weekend – or a lifetime – as the main character stumbles through what Hi-Strung seems to believe is the inevitability of heartbreak, disarray and finally self-discovery through annihilation – “Kamikaze” style – that comes with love.
It’s a common theme, for sure – one of Rock n’ Roll’s cardinal themes – which makes it easy to relate to, but also opens the band up to overwhelming commonalities – and potential obscurity. Fortunately, Doom and the rest of the band – Danielle Wells on cello Shane Hartman (Black Lamb) on drums, Brian Fausett (Hexen) on guitar and Maia Fortis on electric violin and vox – portray the story with a strong symphonic pop hook and intriguing post-punk flavor. Wells’ cello weaves in and out of the wail of Fortis’ brilliant violin, both of which are accented by Fausett’s solid psychedelic guitar work. The mix is almost cinematic, infectuos and definitely becomes subdural.
Doom’s vocals – sometimes she evokes the more guttural side of Johnette Napolitano, others just a little like Dale Bozio, but always strong, haunting – anchor the band and the tale alongside her heavy, thumping bass and Hartman’s thunderous drums. There are times – in the midst of the frenetically beautiful “Snap,” or the wailing “Malfunction,” for instance, that she leaves the music and becomes the voice in your own head, swirling in the whirlpool of misread intentions and dashed hopes that too often become the trademark of romance. The buildup half of the album – “Happy” (the elation of new prospects, excitement, hope), “Weird” (assimilating the other person) “Big Bang” (the lust session, appropriately) and “Lullaby” mimic the early “salad days” well – with almost Shakespearian progress. When you hit “Snap,” you know where the main character is headed, and Hi-Strung does a fantastic job breaking the whole thing open.
Sir Richard Burton’s “George” in Edward Albee‘s brilliant “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” one of cinema’s most poignant representations of the drama that envelopes our bleary visions of love in comparison to the realities of our relationships – spoke of “Historical inevitability.” In his case it was the central theme of his life, made real by the constant cuckolding and malformed hell of the relationship he shared with Elizabeth Taylor’s “Martha.” No – I’m not equating “Malfunction” with as long-standing and weighty a masterpiece as “Wolff,” but there’s definitely a sharing of minds between Doom’s and Burton’s vision of the trappings of romance. Both are believers, it seems in the historical inevitability of heartbreak.
In Hi-Strung’s case, though, there’s a light at the end – where the character of this tale emerges from the mess newly aware, after killing herself (romantically speaking) in “Kamikaze.” If this record’s any indication, there seems to also be some bright, exciting light looming for this band as well.