US gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards commenced their golden era with their debut full-length Songs Of Desperation, and continue in exceptionally fine form on this, their second full-length album. Whilst the concept of a darkly twisted, puritanically oppressed aesthetic combined with lo-fi old time country folk was already established on the duo’s debut EP and first full-length, it is on Hellfire Hymns that the imagery of Those Poor Bastards as it largely remains to this day, was presented upon the world.
A prominent new element on Hellfire Hymns is the darkly twisted, humorous and irreverent religiosity, which teeters on the blasphemously sarcastic but still retains an aura of authenticity, of lived life. There was some of it on Songs Of Desperation already, but not to this extent.
As far as I know, the group hail from Wisconsin, which is quite far from the bible belt, but what do I know of the religious atmosphere of rural Wisconsin? Probably full of puritan tradition and perversion. Whatever the case, Those Poor Bastards riff on religion with imagery full of baptist ecstasy, old testament hellfire, dark sarcasm and subversive verse. It’s quite glorious. To me the lyrics come across as the musings of someone freeing themselves from the shackles of oppressive barnhouse christianity more than postmodern antireligiosity; there is a feeling of desolate separation from God here, of being lost in a darkness without the old comfort of belief. Maybe this is the place from where the lyrics originate, or maybe songwriter Lonesome Wyatt bluffs well.
Musically, the blueprint remains largely the same from the previous album: old time country folk music with a definite gothic twist and fuzz-laden distortion; a sort of garage-y death rock take on gospel country as performed by The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers and dozens of string bands from the Appalachian region. Again, the arrangements are far from intricate or complex, but there are small details which elevate the music, ranging from growled and shrieked backing vocals to the occasional organ, all lending a slightly out-of-tune, out-of-step disjointed feel to the music which works well.
At 44 minutes long, the album perhaps slightly overstays its welcome, containing a few tracks that don’t work quite so well. It’s not that they’re filler material per se, they feel more like decent ideas that are a bit underworked and would have done well with a little more time spent on them. However, these fall into the shadow of majestic tracks such as haunting opener The Dust Storm, the fervously stompin’ Behold Black Sheep and many others.
Hellfire Hymns is a desolate journey from dust storms to incestuous religion, rural isolation, degeneration and loss of God. The album ends on an appropriately hopeless, horrible note with Everything Is Gone, proclaiming an end of all that comes not with a bang but a fizzle.
Despite a few tracks that sound a bit half-worked, this is an album of stunning strength and impressive vision, a true iconic release in the history of dark folk and gothic country.