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Review: Jon McKiel – Hex

Jon McKiel’s Hex isn’t a shrieking witch’s curse or a bloodstained satanic ritual. He draws on a subtler and perhaps older power, like something reawakened when a shaft of sunlight falls on a dusty box in an attic. The songs on this album are the contents of that box: shadows and echoes, big ideas and claustrophobic moods. On the title track, McKiel rustles up a kind of frazzled, trippy country pop and sings about dark matter, new visions, and raw mineral ecstasy: the lyrics, subdued and gnomic, give as much credence to feeling as to meaning.

McKiel has been plying his trade for a couple of decades, but his breakthrough didn’t come until 2020’s Bobby Joe Hope, when he began utilising a reel-to-reel to create strange, dubby collages. Hex uses similar techniques to Hope, but the pop and rock structures of the songs are more visible. This doesn’t mean that the overall sound is more conventional: it just means McKiel can express his unconventionality in a more pointed, well-defined and varied manner. The off-kilter sax on the title track is the perfect example, as is the cursed percussion that introduces String, a song that somehow renders a Graceland-era Paul Simon vibe utterly weird and new and compelling.

Photo by Colin Medley

Still Life peddles an elusive psych-soul, pitched somewhere between summery chillout and autumnal wistfulness: you’re never quite sure exactly where (or when) you are with McKiel’s off-kilter grooves. The Fix takes us lazily, swooningly, towards an inevitable environmental apocalypse, while Under Burden is a kind of brief and itchy tropicalia, while the pitch-perfect Everlee conjures up a lost West Coast late-60s arcadia. Whatever direction McKiel chooses to go in – and he goes in many directions over the course of the album – he always leaves something tantalisingly beyond the grasp of the listener. This well-judged forbearance is the key to the strangeness of his sound.

McKiel hails from New Brunswick, and the landscape of his home province seeps into his recordings in unconventional ways: songs like the woozy Lady’s Mantle seem to document the degradation of the built environment and offer a glimpse of a world beyond human interference. Images of untended gardens and tolling bells speak of endings but also of new beginnings. Marshland and sea speak through these songs, but obliquely, as if through a veil.

Hex has a resigned feel to it, but that resignation is leavened by moments of stark beauty. The sweet, decaying guitar sound on album closer Memory Screen Pt. 2 masks an innate melodicism. The mildly staticky background noise is like an unexpected scent coming through the too-cool air conditioning. A cover of Terry Jacks’ Concrete Sea is a low-key gem, and provides a surprising earworm as well as a fitting message about our disconnection with the natural world.

McKiel absorbs and repurposes a whole host of genres, taking influence from Brazilian and African music as well as soul, psych, folk, and country, but the overall sound – a trippy, fuzzy-edged pop – is strangely consistent. Some of the credit here must go to long-term collaborator Jay Crocker (alias JOYFULTALK), who appears on every song and lends a hand with production. But the true magic of Hex lies beyond the limited purview of critical language. These songs seem to come from the realm of dreams, their edges softened by sleep but their message sharp and bright.

Hex is out now on You’ve Changed Records (3 May 2024)


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