In 1919, Franz Kafka penned "A Country Doctor," a surreal short story about a physician who attempts to save the life of a young boy, but instead finds himself lost in a series of bizarre occurrences. Sinister figures both aid and hinder the protagonist, while time moves in strange, heaving jump cuts. Bloody, wriggling parasites and a large, pink flowering wound threaten to consume the boy alive. At the whim of the author's dream-like logic, the doctor never finds his way out of the nightmare.
Not unlike our doctor, Nevada Hill is stuck inside a Kafka story. At least, that's what it must feel like. Hill, the principal songwriter and frontman of rock trio Bludded Head, has been thrust into an unreal and unwelcome narrative, one marked by traumatic left turns and violent upheavals. Over the last year, Hill has faced a cancer diagnosis for melanoma, a relapse, a blood infection, an unjustified eviction from his Dallas home and all the expected (and unexpected) financial burdens that accompany such events.
However, unlike Kafka's physician, Hill is not defined by the plot twists cast against him. He's made sure of that. Instead, he's repurposed this gross collection of misfortunes to achieve a new immediacy in his art. As a result, there's now a distinctly urgent sense of purpose in the way he makes music, a characteristic no more apparent than on Bludded Head's new release, Reign in Bludd, out this month via New York's Sleeping Giant Glossolalia.
"I wasn't on any treatment at the time, either. The cancer could have spread anywhere," recalls Hill of the EP's gestation. While his battle remains ongoing, he's a soft-spoken and slyly charming man, quick to downplay the uniqueness of his position. "You're always wondering when it's going to travel to your lungs, brain or liver," he continues. "Because then you're really fucked."
Nature is a ruthless and horribly indifferent force. Those touched by the cold grasp of life-threatening diseases know this firsthand, and in turn are in some measure changed forever. Hill is no different. Still, it would be a grand insult to give cancer any credit here. It's a bit too easy to frame Bludded Head's music solely with Hill's diagnosis in mind. Rather Hill, like many skilled artists faced with adversity, has simply rendered inspiration from tragedy, as he no doubt has done countless times before.
"Creating is an impulse for me. I have to do it," he says. "I guess I was just born this way." In light of Bludded Head's knack for bizarre song titles ("Shitsucker Blues," "Fuckitdry") and dark subject matter, you could be forgiven for imagining Hill as an intimidating or embittered figure. But he's not one to feel sorry for himself. Instead, he's governed by a deep-seated humility and sympathetic perspective. "I'm not alone," he says. "We're all suffering."
In truth, Reign in Bludd, which is available for download and as a limited-edition run of 180-gram vinyl, is the culmination in a steady string of strong releases from Hill's Bludded Head (which currently includes Ryan Williams on standup bass and Jon Teague on drums). Despite several lineup changes throughout, beginning with 2012's self-titled LP through to last year's Bludded Death cassette and now with Reign in Bludd, there exists a subtle but evident sophistication in sound. Hill's newfound direction is at turns visceral and heady, yet it's also more purposeful and sparse. It's an unusual, but not altogether different aesthetic for the trio. (Don't worry, tags like "drone" and "doom" still apply.) For all its brute force and cacophony, you can almost call it elegant, a sound as much informed by modern composer La Monte Young as the gorgeous, post-rock expansiveness of Codeine (who Bludded Head, not coincidentally, cover on Reign in Bludd).
"People say we make 'weird' music; I hate that term, but it's what people tell me," Hill says. "To me, I'm making pop music. It's not just noise, not to me." He elaborates: "I'm pretty tone deaf, so music to me is like a big party that I'm not invited to." Which explains why Hill is an artist, as he puts it, who is "mostly concerned with sound." "You can physically affect someone with sound -- that's what I'm interested in," Hill says. And he's right. Bludded Head's music is unavoidably corporal, and live, it's damn near cataclysmic.
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While Bludded Head have been in a creative hot vein for some time now, the eventual completion of the new album -- recorded in one day with producer Matt Barnhart at Chicago's Electrical Audio studio -- was far from a foregone conclusion. Its gestation was a difficult process, to say the least. As with most independent acts, the problems all started with money. "I had to fund the project myself, mainly ... do almost everything myself," Hill says. "It's a lot of weight to carry on your own. It's like self-inflicted torture sometimes. ... For me, [music] is not about money. Fuck making money. I just want people to hear what I'm doing."
By the end of Kafka's story, the country doctor, thrown from one turn of fate to the next, is at last trapped in a failed attempt to escape his horrific circumstances. While the details of Hill's story are still unraveling, his narrative has adopted a different plot twist entirely. Triumph, not submission, is his story's defining arc. In contrast to Kafka's doctor, Hill has found a way out of his nightmare, and somehow, impossibly, gleaned a great piece of art in the process.
But what makes Reign in Bludd great? The long, eloquent strands of sustained sound and carefully measured songwriting are only part of its brilliance. More to the point, the record is an honest and brutal meditation on the questions most people are too afraid to ask, those concerning death, purpose and the fundamental elements of human suffering. It's not laid out in black and white, but listen between the notes and there's a rich reserve of lessons to learn, illuminations that Hill put his life on the line to share with us all.
Reign in Bludd Release Party 10 p.m. Saturday, October 18, at Taquería Pedritos, 4910 Capitol Ave.