Hank3’s Four September Releases (Music Review)

Though Hank Williams III, or Hank3, revitalized the country music scene with his metal-influenced outlaw approach, he’s seemed to be on a slow decline ever since the seminal Straight To Hell. Though even his lesser output was still notable, everyone has been wondering what would happen once his contract with Curb Records finally ended and their legal and creative feuds would finally be done. As 2011 began and Hank3 was free, though, there were several months of no news at all. When news finally did come, it made up for the long silence: Hank3 released four new albums on the same day in early September, showcasing the variety of directions he was now free to go in.

The albums are out now, and they definitely do have an impressive variety and dedication. They sometimes make an argument that his corporate controllers had kept him from embarrassing mistakes, but they also have some pretty amazing moments that could never have been accomplished as long as he was forced to play it safe and worry about commercial concerns. These may not be the best albums of 2011, but it is the biggest musical event of the year.

Attention Deficit Domination cover

Hank3's Attention Deficit Domination - Attention Deficit Domination

The self-titled album from side project “Attention Deficit Domination” shows just how far Hank3 is willing to stray from the sound that made him famous. There is nothing about this music that recalls his country history or even sounds like Hank3’s voice. It also doesn’t sound at all like his thrashing side-project Assjack. A better hint of the style comes from the dedication to Layne Staley on the album cover. The first couple tracks are especially beholden to Staley’s slowest, most depressed vocal work, but driven by weightier metal music than Alice In Chains ever had. Later songs add a bit more energy, but this is still an incredibly heavy, sludgy, doom-laden work. There is almost no emotional release throughout this album, though fortunately the angstful lyrics are too over the top to actually lure the listener into their unrelentingly depressing mindset. Even so, it is a welcome respite when the typical lyrics (“I cut but I don’t bleed”) are leavened by comically extreme moments (“Are we aliens? Are we reptilians?”). Any especially impressionable teenagers who find this at the right time in their youth will probably find this to be one of the most memorable, inescapable albums of their lives.

The music dominates this project. Even when it is just a slow, unobtrusive backdrop to Hank3’s Staley impersonation, it still forms a heavy wall of bass, fuzz, and solid drumming. When the “band” (actually Hank3 playing every instrument) lets loose, it manages to feel energetic and rocking without ever letting up on a sludgy, depressing atmosphere. I don’t normally listen to this sort of doom metal, so I may be missing something, but my impression is that even though this is not necessarily groundbreaking in any way, it’s done very well. Had this actually been contemporary with Staley’s work in the 90’s, it would be a minor classic today. As a follow-up to that era, it isn’t as notable, but fans will not be disappointed.

Ghost To A Ghost cover

Hank3 - Ghost To A Ghost

In contrast, Ghost To A Ghost is supposed to be the “standard” Hank3 album. Unfortunately, it feels less like an album more like a loose connection of songs that didn’t fit in with any of the more focused projects. Much of the “Hank3 sound” found here disappoints.

The opening songs, “Gutter Town” and “Day By Day”, illustrate this: The backing band is skilled, but stays restrained in order to keep the spotlight on Hank3’s confident delivery. The lyrics, though, are a tired rehash of his old songs at best, and verge on gibberish at the worst (the first song refers to the time “when you’re dying on your dying day”, and the second repeatedly claims “we got our own style of living a different way”). Either Hank3 was bored with this style and dashed off the songs quickly, or he is honestly so sure that he is “the king” (as he mentions a couple times) that he doesn’t need to put any effort into them. Most confusing is “The Devil’s Movin’ In”, a song that uses the atmosphere and half of the lyrics from Straight To Hell’s “Angel of Sin”. This version does show some evolution since the original, but there’s no escaping the fact that it feels more like an outtake than a new song.

However, this album has some incredibly bright points as well. Hank3 has experimented on past albums with an intense acid-tinged speed-country sound, and this continues to develop as a rich sub-genre in its own right. The epic seven-minute title track certainly goes beyond most people’s expectations of a country song. “Ridin’ the Wave” has some unfortunate gangster lyrics (“we’re riding the streets with our nines every single day”), but builds an intense rock sound out of traditional country instruments such as the fiddle. The song smoothly segues between country beats and pure rock ones, sounding at home in both worlds. “Time To Die” sounds like a country response to the sludgy rock of Attention Deficit Domination. By fully realizing that downer sound in a new genre, and giving the lyrics a legitimate country twist (“As far back as I can remember, all my heroes had trouble in their eyes. Well it might’ve been drugs or it might’ve been love, but they all knew it was time to die”), this arguably outdoes any of ADD’s tracks.

This album breaks new ground with “Cunt of a Bitch”, which steals the record from “Punch Fight Fuck” as Hank3’s most offensive and most boundary-pushing song. It’s ridiculous at times, and the misogyny seems even a little worse given the lyrical laziness that pervades the album, but it can’t be denied that this is a bold, original song. At its best, it is an unhinged celebration both of southern sounds and Hank3’s own contribution to them.

Despite the more extreme experiments, Hank3’s dedication to country music still comes through. Just as his early work featured shout-outs to the overlooked Wayne Hancock, this includes a track named “Ray Lawrence Jr.”, which is actually a live track of Hank3 sitting down with Lawrence to perform a couple songs. Lawrence writes excellent songs in the traditional country vein, and Hank3 does the scene a real service when he points his fans towards talent like this and away from the bland pop country that dominates the industry.

I enjoy this album. The best songs are worth repeating, and even the worst ones are listenable (other than the embarrassing “Trooper’s Hollar” – had he still had a label, it would have told him in no uncertain terms to dump this poorly-constructed song about how his dog catches coons and lays with “his bitch”). However, it definitely has its share of weak songs. It skates by on the strength of Hank3’s sound and backing band, and it’s easier for me to write the missteps off when I look at the full breadth and experimentation of this four-album release. As much as I keep listening to many of the songs, judged as a single album, this doesn’t live up to the promise of a new Hank3 release.

Gutter Town cover

Hank3 - Gutter Town

Despite coming with Ghost To A Ghost on a physical double album, Gutter Town is definitely a separate work and a break from Hank3’s old sound. Half of the nineteen tracks are mood-setting instrumentals or segues between songs, and the titles (as well as the creepy spoken-word “The Dirt Road”) hint at a story that runs throughout. The thread of this plot, if there is one, is lost early on, but these songs are still connected by a strong theme: Most of them feature a heavy Cajun sound, with Hank3 singing joyfully about mortality. The lyrics, when there are any, are simple repetitions of English and French that seem more intended to making everyone dance around a dirt floor than to any sort of story-telling.

Though this loosely fits in with the American roots music that Hank3 grew out of, it is a stunning change of direction for him. He makes it seem natural, though. The music is fun and infectious, and while it may not be a pure New Orleans sound, it is skillfully written. Within a few minutes, it makes perfect sense that he would create this celebration of a traditional way of life that pop culture understands so shallowly.

In contrast, though, the instrumentals between tracks don’t stand as songs on their own. They’re often simple and boring. They do add to the overall experience of the album, but I’m only in the mood to listen to them about half of the time I play through. It’s hard to complain, though, given that Gutter Town is 77 minutes long. Depending on which songs I include, the core ones are still provide an album-length 35 to 40-minute experience.

This album meanders quite a bit, including some notable songs with guest stars. “Fadin’ Moon” finds common ground between the traditional style of songs that both Hank3 and Tom Waits favor, and the album-closing “With the Ship” incorporates quite a bit of Les Claypool’s weirdness without betraying the honesty of the songs that preceded it. Two tracks with Eddie Pleasant feel a bit out of place, though: They return to a freewheeling country sound, but seem more like they’re making fun of hick singers than enjoying the style.

There is enough filler to keep this from being Hank3’s best album, but with its thrillingly fun songs and bold, successful change of direction, it certainly stands among his most important.

Cattle Callin' cover

Hank3's 3 Bar Ranch - Cattle Callin'

Cattle Callin’ by “Hank3’s 3 Bar Ranch” is another experimental curveball, which Hank3 proudly presents as a new genre called “cattle core”. The songs feature metal playing over recordings of auctioneers. With titles like “37 Heifers” and “Lot 53”, they rarely aim to be more than literal examinations of the auction (and when they do go beyond that, it’s more of a parody of metal themes, such as “Angus of Death”).

The electric guitar and drums that drive this music are most notable for being nothing like the style that Hank3 used in the Attention Deficit Domination project, even though this is another example of him doing all of the vocals, instrumentation, and recording. However, they tend to sound generic. Since the auctioneers just roll off numbers and information without any actual plot, there is nothing to actually give these songs a meaning or lyrical drive.

The early tracks leave the music in the background and the auctioneers at the fore. These are the most interesting ones, with some of the drumwork emphasizing the pattern of their performance and the music making the auction seem like an intense experience. The later tracks drown out the auctioneers beneath a layer of noise and screams that are rarely worth listening to. I recommend that people sample this sound, but it may be a better idea to buy a few of the early tracks from iTunes than the entire album.

It also needs to be said that “cattle core” is certainly not a new genre. To qualify as one, this would need to open up a space for future artists to experiment in. Instead, Hank3 pretty much explores the full limits of these songs in the first third of the album, and goes on to make them feel tired and boring by the end. (It is to his credit that he includes 75 minutes of music here, but it really isn’t necessary. And to get to that length, he uses several of the auctioneer’s recordings on more than one track, without necessarily finding a better approach the second time around.) I can think of plenty of industrial and experimental bands that have sampled people and recordings from different walks of life, but they were generally content to do it in a single song and then move on, not to claim that they had created an entirely new movement.

The main problem with this album is that it didn’t follow the pattern those other bands have established. Had Hank3 put one or two songs like this on an album, it would have been original and interesting. Three or four would have seemed indulgent, if still offering value. But a full album of this just comes across as arrogant and unnecessary.

Hank3’s September releases seem intended to be as bold a statement as Straight To Hell was, but there are too many missteps to say it succeeded on that level. Still, few artists even manage to create a double album that feels necessary, and in total these albums include a lot more quality than that. Even the mistakes are interesting experiments and work as celebrations of musical independence. I’m very interested to see where Hank3 goes from here; Among other surprises, this shows that he seems more interested in soundscapes than in the lyrics that normally drive country singers. Individual pros and cons aside, I have no regrets about buying the entire output of this experiment.

Attention Deficit Domination: B-

Ghost To A Ghost: C+

Gutter Town: B+

Cattle Callin’: C-

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