Heavily influenced by the raw blues sounds of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Columbia’s Boo Hag delves backwards into the depths of the pure emotive power of acapella blues, pushing their music forward to its next logical step: a gospel album as only they could do it. Testify is a 7 track EP documenting a day of home recording by Jay Matheson of Saul Seibert and Scott E. Tempo’s transcendent, cathartic and sometimes apocalyptic visions of modern gospel.
“Perfection kills the soul of all music,” says Tempo, the drummer stressing that they “wanted to fight the temptation to go back and re-record the missed note, the off-beat drum.” Guitarist and singer Seibert admits that technical skill is not his goal, either vocally or on the guitar; but he says after “growing up in a family full of charismatic vocalists, he found freedom in the deliveries” of gospel and blues music. He describes his guitar playing as “drunk driving” and it’s an apt metaphor – he tears through songs, finding and sharing his own truth on the fretboard, even if he is veering for the ditch, making all his passengers white-knuckle the dash. Maybe the vunerability as musicians they confess to is really the true strength of Boo Hag. Testify doesn’t try to console critics and music listeners used to sterile production or the easy comforts of modern “rock”. It’s two huge cold shoulders to all those who said the band was one-note, an open book or just digging up the corpses of music no one cared about anymore, daring the naysayers to go on back to their own solemnly predictable favorites.
Opener “Sacrifice” starts with a simple post punk riff that would be right at home on early ’80s Wire or Mission of Burma albums, but as soon as Seibert starts feeling the spirit it becomes a fast-paced religious dirge, complete with his distinctive guttural blues annunciations. The dire electric blues of “Crown” would give Glenn Danzig pause. As feedback fades in and out, Seibert lets us know how heavy that piece of titular headgear is. “Death” is just that, surreal death blues. As the singer’s voice psychedelically drawls through effects “I see an ancient curse/ I see a burning bush”, the found sounds of Tempo’s field recording (in this case a thunderstorm) never cease, giving Seibert’s declaration, “I see a broken seal/ boy” a dark menace. All recorded live, it’s well-done despite the band’s protests of not aiming for perfection. “Cisterns” is simplistic, ritualistic drums and guitars with more ambient natural sounds playing backup. It might be the track most obviously throwback to earlier Boo Hag material, but the dynamics of the song mesh into something new. “Foundation” uses phone recordings of the band talking with street preachers and proselytizers in Chapel Hill last year and when mixed with the crescendo-laden post punk riff and Saul’s mantra-laden diatribe, it achieves an eerie, almost cinematic Jim Jones-style drama. “7”, with it’s “Let it/ be Known” declaration and slowly evolving guitar riff spins between doom rock and surf punk, never leaving gospel, blues and soul as its axis. The record ends with a spoken word piece from Julia (Liz) Elliott, a continuation of the Boo Hag mythos that evokes both a horror story and a religious moral warning.
At just 6 musical tracks, it ends too early. There will be more Boo Hag music coming this year, though, along with professionally shot video explaining the background of Testify. It’s a sometimes bleak record but as Seibert says, “the irony is that the blues gives me hope.” Like the South Carolina prayer house on the cover, the album has a lot going on inside of it, from salvation to disaster and back again. The mantle of the blues and gospel is worn heavier here than on previous efforts by Boo Hag and it seems like the band is finding itself more and more in the early American art it reveres so much, while still operating in the realm of rock music. As Seibert says, “The themes in early gospel music resonate with the human condition. Forgiveness, compassion, hope. I feel like that’s where my voice goes.” Copies of the CD are available for purchase at Papa Jazz in Columbia before its general release. Check out Testify and see if you can find yourself connecting with the spirit as well.
Recommended if you like: Ty Segall, White Stripes, Danzig
Sean Knight is a native South Carolinian who has spent his life bouncing back and forth between SC and Texas, playing in bands you probably never heard of in both states and stinking up open-mic nights in the Low Country for many years. He plays, collects, listens to and probably spends too much of his life obsessing over music.