His Name Is Alive nails it with richly told rock opera

Album review: His Name Is Alive’s ‘Tecuciztecatl’

His Name Is Alive
London London
★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

For an artist as prolific and prodigious as Warren Defever, the relative silence over the past few years of his main group, His Name Is Alive, was a bit perplexing. Since the late ’80s, HNIA has been one of the few (only?) groups in the alternative-underground scene to willfully and gleefully remain disloyal to any particular sound. Defever’s influences take in everything from girl groups and gospel music to acid rock, free jazz, Gullah folk songs and basically any other interesting form of American music made by humans. He explores these ideas in more dedicated fashion in various side projects, but His Name Is Alive is where he takes the best of those ideas, decontextualizes them, and then fuses them back into a wholly unique sound. However, the last couple of HNIA albums explicitly hearken back to the band’s indie-dream pop phase of the early ’90s, making it seem like Defever was content to let His Name Is Alive be a very specific thing for a very specific group of people.

“Being content,” as Tecuciztecatl makes clear, is not really a thing that Warren Defever is familiar with, because on this album, he and the HNIA band go all-in on that most potentially horrifying pop-music conceit: the Rock Opera. Bear in mind, the Rock Opera is different than the Concept Album, in that the latter only requires a theme and perhaps a story; the former needs those, as well as some very specific indicators like on-the-nose lyrics, moments of shameless pomposity, lots of easy-to-grok musical quotations. Basically, Rock Operas are bigger and dumber, while simultaneously being more intricate and complex, but they are a definite musical form, and perfect for a peripatetic songsmith such as Defever.

Starting, as a rock opera must, with an overture, the nine-minute opening salvo of “The Examination” sets the stage with a gradually crescendoing melange of musical motifs (some of which draw from the Infinity People, a psychedelic cult-rock band Defever is part of, while others point toward Queen and Pink Floyd), stage-ready grandiosity and story exposition. (It is a story of twins and evil and hexes, so of course “The Examination” is about an OB/GYN visit before said twins are born.) “Hold on to Your Half” follows on the download we received, reinforcing the lyrical theme. Then “See You in a Minute” out-bombasts Jesus Christ Superstar with a delicate acoustic intro that blossoms into what seems like 10 distinct musical ideas, with a half-dozen vamps and horn stabs dueling with Defever’s super-distorted guitar and Andrea Morici’s medicated vocal harmonies.

One wouldn’t fault Defever for half-assing the Rock Opera idea for the rest of Tecuciztecatl, as he so clearly has it nailed on these opening tracks, but he not only sticks with it, he expands upon it, growing both the lyrical story and the musical ideas. By the time the gentle, minute-long acoustic serenade of “The Cup” wraps up the album, HNIA has blasted through a half-century’s worth of sounds and a camp-horror storyline that, though heavy with allegory, is richly told. It’s an impressive feat, and one that only someone as weird – and weirdly talented – as Defever could pull off.

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