Hex, first released on Valentine’s Day 1994, wasn’t the first post-rock album, and Bark Psychosis wasn’t the first post-rock band. By the time this odd British collective put out its first (and for nearly a decade, only) album, Talk Talk had already recorded two post-rock milestones and other UK-based bands such as Disco Inferno, Stereolab and Moonshake were experimenting with samplers, electronica, ambient textures and other elements previously foreign to rock music. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the British music critic Simon Reynolds referred to Hex as “post-rock”—a genre he defined as “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords [sic].” He didn’t invent the term, but more than anyone else, Reynolds popularized it, and anointed Bark Psychosis the subgenre’s standard bearer.

More than 25 years later, Hex, along with Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, is one of the two most essential post-rock records and one of the most singular records of the ’90s. Bark Psychosis’ debut remains a spellbinding listen, weaving ambient, dub, electronica, psychedelia, and even jazz into a musical experience that doesn’t resist definition so much as necessitate the invention of new words to describe it. It’s difficult to describe what Hex sounds like to someone who’s never heard it. It’s the kind of record that one has to listen to in order to understand it.

Bark Psychosis had already gone through more changes in the lead-up to their debut than most bands go through in their entire lifespan. When vocalist-guitarist Graham Sutton and bassist John Ling first began collaborating in 1986 at the age of 14, they sought to emulate the punishing torrents of noise created by bands like Napalm Death and Sonic Youth. The boys quit school two years later to pursue music full-time, recruiting drummer Mark Simnett and releasing a string of singles and EPs, each recorded in a different style than the last: hardcore punk, dream pop, even techno. Released in 1992, the 21-minute “Scum” (their first single with keyboardist Daniel Gish, formerly of Disco Inferno), was something of a breakthrough, drawing more attention than anything else they had done up until that point. Furthermore, its dark ambience and quiet chaos, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly” or Talk Talk’s “After the Flood,” laid the groundwork for what was to come on Hex. (Almost all of Bark Psychosis’ pre-Hex material can be found on the Independency compilation.)

Between the group’s chameleonic experimentation and Sutton’s own mercurial tendencies (closer “Pendulum Man” was in fact named for his mood swings), it’s a wonder that Hex is as cohesive as it is. Not one of its seven songs outstays its welcome or ends too soon—some of them are circular, following familiar verse-chorus-verse structures, while others are more linear, starting in one form and ending in another, accumulating and shedding mass until they come to rest. If the term “dream pop” didn’t already refer to a completely different style of music, it could applied here: Centered around atmosphere and mood rather than guitar riffs and vocals, the album seems to operate on its own Lynchian dream logic.

Hex resembles a rock album, albeit a particularly shaded and baroque one, for the bulk of its first 10 minutes. Opener “The Loom” begins with a repeated piano and strings before unfurling, beautifully, into something indicative of what Sigur Rós would create on their own post-rock landmark, Agætis byrjun. It’s followed by “A Street Scene,” the album’s lone single, ostensibly chosen because it’s the most accessible and conventional moment, but it also best demonstrates how Bark Psychosis’ original quartet functioned as a unit. Sutton’s bright, shimmering guitar playing and half-muttered singing (he’s an admittedly limited vocalist) appears to be the focus, underpinned by Ling’s supple, subtle bass work and a gently braying trumpet. Then the chorus comes like a tectonic shift: the volume jumps as Simnett’s drums move to the forefront and Sutton’s guitar becomes a corroded smear on the audio tape—not a solo as much as a suppressed groan of distortion. After another verse and another chorus, it changes shape again, fading into a hypnotic, drifting outro that sways through the air like a falling autumn leaf. It’s the ideal song to play if you want to convert a rock listener into a post-rock listener.

From there, Hex ventures further and further from rock. “Absent Friend” is almost beyond genre—it’s not exactly a breakup song but if you play it during a period of loneliness or any kind of emotional strain, it’ll feel like one—culminating in a dazzling extended coda with intertwined guitar and piano lines. Ling’s dubby bass playing is undeniably the star of “Big Shot,” but it’s given a strong supporting performance by the vibraphone, which feels glassy and nocturnal; it’s a warmer and more seductive piece of music than anything on Moby’s destroyed., an album he called “a soundtrack for empty cities at 2 a.m.”—a full 17 years after Bark Psychosis first nailed the vibe. “It’s 3 a.m., don’t know where we’re going/ Just drive somewhere fast,” Sutton croons, as if you’re nodding off in the backseat.

“Fingerspit,” then, is what it sounds like to wake up in the middle of the dark night of the soul, wracked by doubt. “Reach inside, it’s upside down/ I can’t find any way out” Sutton sings on the chorus, each strum of his guitar a little more urgent than the last. “So throw away your promises/ Speak in tongues, can’t find my head,” he continues. The song itself, in a way, is similar to Mark Hollis’ solo work in how it uses silence as the main instrument, punctured by unexpected bursts of noise—a clanging guitar, a fist on piano keys. But it’s also Sutton’s most vulnerable moment as a lyricist. On “Scum,” Sutton fashioned his words as a response to the hollow euphoria of what he dismissed as “crap house tracks”: “Don’t tell me that we’re all free/ Can’t escape what you can’t see,” he intoned gravely. On Hex, his lyrics are much less cynical but still veiled, though at times he sings them clearly enough for you to catch a brief flash of meaning—the soothing, hymnal “It’s gonna work out anyway” on “The Loom,” the resignation that cracks through on “Absent Friend” when Sutton sings “It’s high time I found myself on the road/ Educate myself ‘til it hurts.
But as with the guitars, the lyrics aren’t the focus; it’s about the sound of the whole and how Sutton’s voice, along with the other instruments, convey feeling as opposed to meaning. Words such as, “It’s gonna work out anyway” are reassuring enough, but “The Loom” presents them with the tenderness of a shoulder rub. Sutton sings the refrain on “Absent Friend” (“You know that’s the biggest joke of all”) like a man who’s come to a realization far too late. His closing words on “Eyes & Smiles” come amidst a sonic squall of percussion, guitar and trumpet, his “You gotta go” becoming a volcanic bellow. Listening to the album, you feel it, from its restless quiet to its desperate turmoil.

And it was turmoil that drove the band apart. By the time Bark Psychosis had finished recording Hex, two of its four members had left, including Ling, whose musical burnout and creative differences with Sutton culminated in him leaving a rehearsal and never coming back. Sutton and Simnett released another EP, Blue, in 1994 before the band folded. After several years as a producer, Sutton quietly resurrected the Bark Psychosis name with a new group of collaborators, releasing the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be follow-up ///Codename: Dustsucker in 2004. Since that album, the most significant noise to emerge from the Bark Psychosis camp was a reissue of Hex on Fire Records in 2017. The band appears to have folded once again, this time for good.

But Hex was enough to cement Bark Psychosis’ place as one of the foundational bands of a pivotal subgenre. As nebulous as post-rock may be, one can listen to several of its most prominent bands in the ‘00s—Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai—and hear elements of the sound that Bark Psychosis pioneered: a twinkling guitar riff, a velvety drone or string section, a sudden building or release of noisy tension. Bark Psychosis weren’t the first to make such music, but few have made it better than Hex.

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