Album Report: “ÆP” by HushGush

HushGush has not stopped their constant motion. This new St Louis experimental rock outfit has embraced flux as their flagship and undergone many transformations both in the physical and conceptual realms throughout their short career. Certain elements permeate every iteration of the group: Augie Boyne’s soft voice, characteristic horn work and meandering guitar lines, Danielle Williams’ masterful harp playing and close quarters vocal and sax harmonies, and Antonio Leone’s storming bass attacks cutting through every texture come to mind. The band originally featured Jessica Vendegna on drums and Colin Ferguson on second guitar, but after Jessica’s departure from the city Colin took over the skin department.

Appropriately enough, HushGush’s debut EP tells the story from the beginning and immortalizes the band’s first iteration. Conceptually and sonically the band is somewhere else right now– at least I’ve gathered that much from recent live performances including an original movie by Antonio with a live soundtrack to boot. However, “ÆP” is the collection of compositions that got them to where they are right now. Tracking started close to the beginning of the band’s career and as time sped forward the recording continued, but the band’s mind and identity went somewhere else. Still, there was work to do and this release is the fruit of that work– a still image of what HushGush used to be.

This particular work is one of the first I see in the city under the production of John Hamms of Jacques Limón fame. The amount of time spent on this release and the adamance of recording onto tape seem to have had positive results: the mix is crisp and lively, with a beautiful presence in drums, ethereally mixed horns and harp, and textures that visit momentarily only to fade away in a seamless fashion. Indeed, every individual instrument commands attention clearly and transparently, guaranteeing a full appreciation of the mix. If I were to complain about the sound on this at all my mind would gravitate towards the blend itself, where a lot of the individual elements sound great but at times feel isolated from each other as if they were in different rooms. In the peaks of the album all guitars and vocals blend to an almost unnatural degree for a tantalizing effect; in the troths the vocals stick out like a sore thumb and the guitars strum with an awkward tonality. It’s not a constant effect, but when it strikes it does detract from the experience.

The EP opens with “I want to make a mountain and I want to make it out of you”, a mouthful of a name and piece. The introduction presents a solid mission statement in groove with complex interactions between drums, bass and guitar that eventually acquire a new texture in the shape of a horn line. The endless oscillation in this wind work hypnotizes the listener as off-set drum fills propel the composition further. It’s a stimulating way to start the release, like curtains slowly opening to a surreal landscape. By the time the vocals make their way in we’re already within the world conceived. Augie’s voice is off putting at first, but when Danielle comes in to harmonize, the sound is rounded out effectively. The vocal work showcases slow moving rhythms that become a flagship throughout all of “ÆP”‘s singing– they are confusing but strangely calming against the high octane rhythmic work characteristic of the group.

“mountain” is solid, but I do perceive issues that keep it from perfection. The doom-esque section towards the end is an appropriate release to the guitar and bass unison that precedes it, but it eventually makes its way into an erratic spoken word section performed by Colin where I wish the text was slightly clearer, as it is clearly overpowered by the band. The instrumental underneath is interesting though a little overstated, and the guitar work in it starts to feel less natural than in the first half, as if it had departed the plane where the original lineup resided. Nowhere is this more present than in the outro, where the strumming guitar sounds like it’s straight up from another record. Considering the grandiose nature of the track these details can appear minimal, but the first half does overshadow the second in that the latter material distracts me and takes me out of the dream that made the composition work so well towards the beginning.

It’s easy to want to address these tracks in chunks: they evolve quickly and shift gears suddenly. “Original Sinners” is a great example of this compositional trope being pulled off at a very high level. The first half of this piece is a definite highlight of the release, with eerie and confusing guitar and bass work that spins around the listener’s head incessantly. The vocal lines are terribly infectious, and when moving cross country the band appears to have a pressing and perhaps sinister mission at hand. This vocal work is only enhanced by the fantastic horn soli that tag each line of the second verse. They add a new human element to the texture that works with the vocals in creating a very organic and tensely relatable image. A jagged, syncopating drum beat interrupts this section to introduce a nerve-wracking bridge colored by Antonio’s tormenting bass hits and a jarring vocal in the line “when you eat yourself away”. A fanfare-esque horn line takes the track on its way out in what feels like a 180 degree turn that leaves you staring in the same direction, with elegant harp counterpoint that joins the winds’ texture with ease. It’s a strong journey that manages to flow despite its departures to become a self-contained and rewarding piece of music.

One of the main protagonists in this album is the idea of the sound collage, perhaps due to an influence from Antonio’s past plunderphonic work under the Popular Housing moniker. “mountain” ends with a short field recording and “Savior Complex” opens with a minute and a half sound manipulation piece, but the strongest example of this is “Ear to the puddle”, an appropriately named, 5-minute long liquid sound composition. What appears to be layers of field recordings of water in many forms blend together for what ends up being a humbling rest after the mammoth opener. Every new texture and loop cuts through slightly for a palpable sensation; the drops of water feel both immediately close by and eternally far away. I would have perhaps bumped the level a bit so turning up the volume for it wasn’t necessary when listening (the entrance to the following track “Original Sinners” can catch you by surprise), but in terms of intention and placement I think it’s a perfectly appropriate move that proves bold and effective in the track list.

“Savior Complex” closes the release out in celebration, surprising the listener with a festive drum groove after the ambient introduction is closed. This opening vignette is highly stimulating in its speed alterations, and manages to lay the red carpet for Jessica’s beat well, especially when the small feedback note doubles the drum work. Immediately surprising is Antonio’s opening bass line, a Yowie influenced high note tremolo pick colored by slides that bounce excitedly and unhinged. It’s a nice change of pace for the usually iron clad, hyper clean HushGush texture, and when the bass finally joins the guitar line the release is felt throughout. The horn line that colors this section is of the most straightforward ones in the release, but the haunting flute harmonies and tumultuously syncopating bass variations help turn it otherworldly. The second half of the tune vaguely reminds me of Glued in guitar interaction and dramatically leaping vocal melodies. The horn section that gets introduced towards the end of the track underwhelms me a bit, perhaps because of how loose the interaction between the wind arrangement and the drums feel, but eventually the track returns to its usual groove and sends “ÆP” on its way out with the melodic tag we were introduced to before. It’s a solid closing track, and despite a few small sections I found myself connecting with most of the material presented in it.

Considering that this is perhaps the first and only musical synthesis of this particular version of HushGush, “ÆP” manages to bring this original lineup to life and make these pioneering compositions a concrete part of St Louis’ music history. I am amazed at the amount of conceptual and loose narrative work the band imbued into a collection of songs that would most likely not be played again, and I believe that the work paid off handsomely. Despite the technical aspects of these math-influenced passages, HushGush’s sound has a definite pop appeal that gives certain sections of the release a sort of permanence in the mind. Grooves and melodies from “ÆP” often flock into my thoughts to color whatever moment I’m living at any given time. The ambient work within is justified and welcome, and the close quarter vocal harmonies have a surreal quality that ranges from terrifying to endearing, giving the band’s sound a lot of personality. Understanding that HushGush most definitely does not sound like this anymore, I’m happy they shared this collection of songs with us and that the beginning of their musical career won’t be lost in time.

Listen to “ÆP” via Bandcamp down below:


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