I must confess that I had never heard of Hater before Ben Shepherd put out In Deep Owl a couple of years ago. I was really, really taken with that album and had been thrilled at the prospect of taking an interview with him when the opportunity came up; in fact, I jumped at it. It was during that interview when I learned about Hater (read: Shepherd was the one who told me about it), but I still hadn’t heard any music. Searching my local record stores revealed nothing (and I am not often given to trolling the internet for bootlegs, nor do I make much use of iTunes), and I let my search end there – ready to let the project fall into my “Whatever happened to?” file. The fates smiled though and I learned that Universal Music Enterprises would be reissuing Hater’s debut on vinyl so I jumped at the opportunity to review it, determined to not my interest lapse from it again.
As it turns out, everything about Hater’s debut album defies expectation. A quick study of the album’s liner notes reveals that the album was made by Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, John McBain of Monster Magnet, bassist John Waterman and Devilhead singer Brian Wood (who was also brother of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood), but the sound of it bears few, if any, of the earmarks or sounds which would express a creative kinship with those bands, and it is perfectly unique and instantly attention-grabbing for it.
… And all of the above proves to be true from the moment “Mona Bone Jakon” (which is a Cat Stevens cover) rambles its way in to open the album. Right off, the song meanders its way, powered by a swampy, sort of Southern-fried rhythm guaranteed to grab the attention of anyone expecting anything similar to Soundgarden or Monster Magnet for the simple fact that it’s nowhere near any of that. Rather, while still obviously an alt-rock offering, a very credible argument could be made for “Mona Bone Jakon” playing the pre-cursor to both Queens of the Stone Age and the Desert Rock movement in both spirit and sound. There are very arid qualities about Brian Wood’s vocal performance as well as a very mercurial quality about the sounds produced by Cameron, Shepherd and McBain. Overall, the experience of the opening track on Hater is great and great bait in that it will have listeners anxious to hear what the band does next, and ready to belt in to find out.
What listeners find after “Mona Bone Jakon” lets out is a side which strikes a precarious balance between alt-rock’s sneer and “problem child” attitude, and grunge and indie rock’s leaner and grainier production and compositional style. In print, it sounds like as dicy a proposition as it did when Hater was originally released in 1993, but the proof and power are both quickly found in the listening. “”Who Do I Kill?” sounds like a glorious romp, like Ween made pre-Chocolate and Cheese complete with a doubled, half-spoken and nasal vocal line, while “Tot Finder” follows it sounding like a forgotten or cast-off Neil Young song circa Re-ac-tor (in a much better way than one might think, though).
The creative divide between those songs is significant, of course, but both play well and compellingly – after that is when Hater a curve ball in the form of the transcendent acoustic instrumental “Lion and Lamb” to put listeners off balance before hitting them with the surly, Neil Young-ian stomper, “Roadside,” to put them on their ass and close the side. Every step of the way, there is no shortage of weirdness (a reversed solo here, a doubled and abstract vocal there), but listeners will quickly find themselves gobbling it up heartily. It’s weird, but very attractively so for a hard rock fan with a desire to walk on the wild side and will have listeners of the right mind flipping the album in earnest to see what more there is to find.
And in flipping the album over is when listeners will be put off-balance again. The weirdest thing about Hater’s debut album is that, after the A-side gets listeners into the idea that the travel through it is as bizarre as the music, everything seems to (almost spontaneously) straighten up and make more sense on the album’s B-side. Whether it’s because the A-side of the album so perfectly perverted listeners’ sensibilities before tapering down through the side’s running remains unclear even twenty-three years later, but that “Down Undershoe” begins Hater’s B-side in a completely different head-space is undeniable.
Here, a clean-toned guitar seems to almost trip over itself in a most fluid manner as Matt Cameron fights to contain the song with his drum kit and Brian Wood just seems to prattle on, perfectly distracted. It’s a very strange start for the side because, while not a bad song, “Down Undershoe” marks itself as a completely different creature from the album’s A-side again – it refreshes the energy of the album, and resets its off-filter spirit. After that, “Circles” gets more active and frenetic than anything on Hater’s A-side before “Putrid” FINALLY pulls back on the energy and begins to get the going dark again.
After that, Hater indulges a surreal and dry country cover of “Blistered” (originally written and recorded by Billy “Edd” Wheeler, but it sounds like Ween here) and a side-winding rocker in “Sad McBain” to close the side. In that end, listeners who have gone front-to-back with this reissue will feel (as was the case in 1993 too – presumably) that everything about Hater has been left neatly synched up and closed in a very surreal way. Like everything that the band members spilled out haphazardly throughout this entire running has just been put back (as one might expect to see in a David Lynch movie).
That’s absolutely untrue though; those who hear this reissue of Hater (and this was true of the original release too) will have had their minds blown. They won’t be won’t be able to unhear what they’ve heard on this album, they’ll have been changed more completely than they may have been by anything Wellwater Conspiracy recorded or any of the other endeavors that Shepherd and Cameron have embarked upon together since; this album is a genuine, perception-altering EVENT. It’s incredible – I feel guilty at never having heard it before.