If you were to take a look at the ‘About’ section on Portland-by-way-of-Tucson-based quintet Young Hunter’s Faecbook page, this is what you’d see:
Coyote leads you down a dark road, across a river and to the other side.
At which point Dayhiker, Young Hunter’s third full-length (and fourth release overall), will suddenly start to make a lot more sense.
See, Coyote is the Trickster figure in many indigenous North American cultures, including across band leader Benjamin Blake’s native southwest. The Navajo people in particular revere Coyote as one of the most important characters in their mythology. A troublemaker with (depending on the culture) an occasional evil streak—the Navajo believe it’s an ill omen for a coyote to cross your path when travelling, and that any such journey should be abandoned—Coyote, like most Trickster figures, fulfills two main roles: to instruct, and to use his tricks to challenge a culture’s rules and behavioral norms.
Or, to put it another way, what one expects from Coyote and what one actually gets is seldom the same thing. In that respect, Blake may be transforming into something of a Coyote-like figure himself on Dayhiker. After originally starting Young Hunter as a solo project, they’ve since evolved into a full band with Blake as its spiritual center, penning lyrics that draw attention to environmental and social issues, as well as more personal, existential questions about humanity’s place in the world. Their sound has evolved considerably from one album to the next as well. Looking at the album’s cover art will likely give the listener certain expectations going in, but it’s best to check them before hitting ‘play’ on this one. Even fans of the band’s previous albums should file what they think they know about Young Hunter away.
This is not the record you think it is, but fear not – Coyote may lead you down a dark road, but he won’t lead you anywhere you weren’t meant to go.
Extended metaphors aside, Dayhiker is a difficult album to pin down. The cover art suggests trad metal, which is a misdirect. Opening track “Shadow of the Serpent,” featuring lead vocals from keyboardist Sara Pinnell, sounds more than a little bit like Ruby the Hatchet, but that’s also a misdirect. The bulk of the album sounds more like Ryan Adams and Juliana Hatfield decided to put together a band that draws equal influence from Queens of the Stone Age, west coast 70’s proto-doom, Hatfield’s late 80s/early 90s college rock tendencies, and the more rock-oriented songs in Adams’s own discography. Only hints of the melodic trad/doom style that dominated their self-titled 2016 full-length remain, making this album a bit of a darker, more mercurial affair.
That’s not to say, however, that the record is some kind of endless bummer. In fact, there’s a depth of feeling to the proceedings that produces the exact opposite effect. As Blake says in the notes that accompany the promo, that duality is built into Dayhiker’s DNA by design:
Heavy music is inherently cathartic. It’s a way for a room full of people to realize they’re not alone in their suffering, confusion, frustration, and anger. And it’s beautiful because there’s no emotion that’s too intense for it. On Dayhiker, that’s something we pushed ourselves to explore.
So while the album’s lyrics deal primarily with topics related to the feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness that can stem living in the environmentally and politically troubled 21st Century, certain aspects of the music strives to cut through some of that emotional haze. It all starts with the vocals, specifically the way that Blake’ and Pinnell’s vocal lines intertwine so beautifully in the many places where they double on leads. The timbres of their respective voices create a natural dynamic not unlike what’s described in the opening lyric to “Hunger” – “The brightest light casts the darkest shade.” Their vocals both illuminate and deepen the gloom described by the lyrics. The best example is the track “Dark Age,” where Pinnell’s voice especially provides a much-needed contrast to the downcast lyrics and tense, driving bass line that carry the song.
The same thing happens musically on Dayhiker. The more overtly melodic aspects of many of the riffs are given a darker tint courtesy of Tim Green’s (Melvins, WITTR) hazy production and analog recording techniques. The guitar and bass tones have the warmth one would expect from an analog recording, but it’s closer to the kind of unpleasant warmth one would experience on a desolate stretch of New Mexico or Arizona highway. As a result, riffs like the QOTSA-sounding intro to “Entered Apprentice” don’t so much sound catchy as have a “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert…” vibe.
Clearly, Young Hunter is trying to pull off a very delicate balancing act on Dayhiker, and for the most part I think they succeed. The only misstep on the record seems to be “Black Mass,” which also happens to be the longest song on the album. It’s really only the first two-thirds or so of the song that don’t quite work for me – the riff and vocal melody both feel very flat compared to the rest of the record. At about the seven-minute mark, though, it turns into what feels like a completely different song, with a stomping riff and one of the catchiest guitar licks on the record. Those last two minutes inject a welcome dose of life into the track, but they aren’t quite enough to salvage the song as a whole.
On the whole, though, Dayhiker is definitely a winner. It’s also one of those albums that slowly reveals itself over the course of multiple listens. I’ve given it at least ten spins prepping for this review, and I’m still picking up on its nuances. I may not quite know what genre to place Young Hunter in musically, but this one comes highly recommended just the same.