BY FRED MILLS
Once in a blue moon, and I do mean the bluest of the rarest of those damn moons, a record turns up in the mail of which I might know absolutely nothing about, yet out of the dozens I receive on a daily basis, something about this lone arrival compels me to walk over to the stereo and cue it up on the spot. Such was the case with How to Kill a Horse. Maybe it was the subtly Gothic/violent undertones of the title, accompanied as it was by sleeve art featuring an extreme close-up of a grey-hued mare in all its beautiful, equine innocence. Or maybe it was the brief bio blurb affixed to the sleeve, informing me that Brother Dege hails from the Deep South and is, quote/unquote, “one of the best kept secrets” in said region, and the fact that I’m a Southerner born and raised and can’t help harboring an affinity for my brethren. Hell, I don’t know.
What I do know is that on that morning it was the record I listened to first. And then a second time, and then a third. Some several weeks later, I’m still floored.
Brother Dege—Dege Legg, to family and friends—hails from Southern Louisiana and is, according to the bio on his website, of Cajun-French, Irish and Native American ancestry. He’s been releasing records since 1997, including several with the band Santeria, whose 2008 album Year of the Knife it turns out I not only heard but reviewed (positively). Aha. Now things are becoming clear. And as with that record, which was primal yet melodic, edgy hard rock married to deep-South blues and reminiscent in places of the late, great Sixteen Horsepower, Brother Dege channels several decades of choice influences while reaching toward a singularly unique style.
Comparisons can be made to the likes of Chris Whitley, J.J. Grey & Mofro, Rocco DeLuca and Rainer Ptacek, most obviously due to Dege’s prominent wielding of resonator guitar, its twinned atmospheric-yet-earthy qualities signifying mystery and spirits alongside elegance and conviction. Too, his vocals, part bluesman’s haunted howl and part folkie’s reassuring croon, convey a remarkable range of emotions that perfectly suit his character-driven tales. In opening track “The Black Sea,” a minor-chord, slide-guit, midtempo thumper, his protagonist’s yearning wanderlust is palpable. “Have you never been woken and in time set free?” he asks, continuing, “I’ve never been beholden to kings and queens. But now I got the notion to get set free.” A few tracks later, in the U2-esque “How to Kill a Horse,” ghostly guitar arpeggios swirl around the narrator as he sets about the dark business announced in the title, yet one is left with the unsettling thought that maybe he’s not talking about a literal horse at all: “Deep in the ruins of shame, where only dogs, dust and fools shall remain… I got a horse to kill that no man can break.”
This is heavy stuff, and it’s a dark, dark album as well. But the cathartic moments come frequently, too, like the roiling, cresting, psychedelic thunder that is the instrumental “O’Dark 30,” or “Crazy Motherfucker,” a straight up Delta blues boogie that, with its anthemic choruses, is bound to be a show-stopper in concert. Bottom line: whatever it was that got me to listen to the record in the first place continues to pay dividends endless spins later. How to Kill a Horse is headed straight to my personal best-of-2013 list, and my gut feeling is that if you hear the album it’ll wind up on yours, too.
DOWNLOAD: “How to Kill A Horse,” “Crazy Motherfucker,” “Last Man Out of Babylon”