The Sterling Sisters - Hale
Pesanta Urfolk
Dark Americana
10 songs (35' 44")
Release year: 2013
Pesanta Urfolk
Reviewed by Andy
Surprise of the month

We get some odd music sent to us at Metal Reviews once in a while. Anyone who has read the reviews for a while is used to seeing the occasional hard rock, industrial, punk, or goth album popping up on one week or another, and it's fun to listen to them too -- they might not be metal, but they often are a branch from the same dark tree. But it's rare for us to get Americana. That's not like Southern rock or stoner doom, which has its roots squarely in the metal world; that's country music. and while some reviewers are more eclectic in their tastes, I've never been one of them; I subsist on a pretty steady diet of metal and country doesn't make an appearance on my playlist. Which is why I'm rather surprised to find how much I like The Sterling Sisters' debut LP, Hale.

Actually, when one thinks about it, Americana's history has a parallel to some metal genres' histories. A number of country afficionadoes got as fed up with the overproduced, cliched sound of many mainstream country acts as many metalheads got with the overproduced, cliched sound of a lot of late 80s glam metal or early 00s nu-metal, and spawned the rawer, more primitive Americana genre; think of it as extreme country. And Hale, a self-described "dark Americana", certainly is the closest country album to metal that I've ever heard. Though with an unmistakably country sound, it's also dark, ghostly, and fiercely lonely on most of its songs, with steel guitar licks quietly fading in and out during the intro track just before hitting the taut, snapping title track, where the clean guitar echoes with lots of reverb like demented surf music with high-speed picking on the chorus. The songs are mostly in a minor key, with the clean tremolo picking alternating with louder full strumming on tracks like Shallow Blood and Heaven, sung harshly with hopeless finality and Andrew Haas's banjo (yes, of course there is a banjo) jangling in the background.

That's about as loud and heavy as it ever gets, but darkness is everywhere on this album without the assistance of distortion or screams, helped by the spare, minimalist sound and highly poetic lyric content, which is full of gothic metaphor but few country lyric cliches -- no references to anyone's dog, pickup, or current whereabouts in a county jail here, though there is plenty of twangy accent and occasional patois scattered through them. George Cessna, the guitarist, also does the male vocals, with a flat, twangy sound that reminds one a little of Bob Dylan, which contributes hugely to the atmosphere of the album and unites with the musical accompaniment to produce a spare, windswept sound like a grimmer version of Johnny Cash. But Scout Paré-Phillips' mezzo-soprano wail is what really makes this album great; her singing voice is simply beautiful and blends with Cessna's to perfection, especially on songs like Last Run, a slower song where she takes the lead, or Country Love and Red, White & Beauty, both of which are more like duets but which she dominates even when she's just doing the background vocals. These two also drop the minor-key harshness for a more positive-sounding melody, but that just gives the rest of the album contrast, and the latter song makes a nice finale to the album.

It's not metal, but I definitely recommend that you pick up Hale if you can enjoy dark music outside the metal genre. This is one of the better albums I've heard this year, and -- I've been dying to say this throughout writing this review -- puts the "Goth" in "American Gothic" in a way that metal fans are very likely to appreciate.

Killing Songs :
Hale, Last Run, Heaven, Red White & Beauty
Andy quoted 88 / 100
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