Hrsta: Stem Stem in Electro

If the Hrsta (her-shta) sound sometimes recalls Set Fire To Flames, that's no accident as band leader Mike Moya has left his indelible guitar fingerprints all over that band's recordings (as well as the first two albums by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, of which he was a founding member). It's the first sound one hears on Stem Stem in Electro, too, Hrsta's second album and Constellation debut (the first, L'éclat du ciel était insoutenable, appeared on Montreal's Fancy Recordings in 2001). Hrsta is considerably more than a vehicle for Moya's distinctive guitar playing, though; it's a showcase for his songwriting talents, too, which find considerable support in the musicians he enlisted for the project: Hangedup drummer Eric Craven, bassist Harris Newman, and string-players Beckie Foon, Gen Heistek, and Sophie Trudeau, names no doubt familiar to Set Fire and Godspeed fans.

The album effectively mixes voice and instrumental pieces into a varied package. Moya's rather androgynous vocal sound is as distinctive as his guitar, whether adding dramatic unease to the gothic ballad “Blood on the Sun,” gently pleading in the hymn-like “Gently Gently,” or massed into a choir on the bluesy head-nodder “Folkways Orange.” The other members join in with a trance-like “we climb, and we climb, to the light, to the light” chant on the forceful opener “…and we climb,” otherwise distinguished by its loping gait, string stabs, and ambient guitar howl. Hrsta proves itself equally adept at soundscapes, whether it be a meditative setting of guitar shudders and strings (“Une infinité de trous en forme d'hommes”) or an industrial array of howls, scrapes, and clatter (“Heaven is Yours”). Interestingly, the strings—so prominently featured in the other bands—here tend to merge with the whole to add texture and thicken the overall sound. A rare string spotlight occurs during the intro to the majestic closer “Quelque chose à propos des raquetteurs” with Trudeau's sweetly singing violin backed by Moya's guitar. All of which is fine and good, but nothing matches “Swallow's Tail,” the album's peak. It begins with Moya draping his tremulous twang over a screechy metallic pulse but the piece really takes flight when spooky schoolyard verses alternate with the anthemic roar of the band's crushing caterwaul—an incredible sound not quickly forgotten. While not the most spectacular release in the Constellation catalogue, Stem Stem in Electro has more than its share of spellbinding moments.

May 2005