16 Horsepower


There are two forms of music that any self-respecting, angry young rock fan NEVER likes: christian music and country music. Sure, you can listen to Aqualung, and Johnny Cash is allowed a few line-walking songs, but that’s it. These two forms are verboten, and if you want your vaguely homosexual indie-cred to stay intact, you better remember it.

So what do 16 Horsepower do, to be widely disliked by all us rock apes? They combine them! And in so doing, they make some of the best American music of the ’90s.

16 Horsepower is one of those dark bands that you graduate into after a few years of high school gothness. They combine the musical sensibilities of Joy Division-sans-synthesizers with the grim Jesus-focus of latter-day Nick Cave, but without all the balladeering. They also rock a helluva lot harder than most of their contemporaries in any genre.

The music itself is heavily guitar-based, with occasional flourishes of banjo and bandoneon (a nifty little squeezebox) by singer/lyricist David Eugene Edwards. The sound is densely layered, and Edwards’ singing is a plaintive howl (really creepy). The lyrics focus on spiritual themes, but there are no praise songs here. In their songs, fire and brimstone are the more common elements than God’s love and compassion.

I caught 16HP when they opened for Nick Cave during his 1998 U.S. tour. They played for an hour, ripping through their material while barely looking at the audience. It was about as hard-rocking a show as I’ve seen (bested only by Nick Cave himself, ten minutes later). They’re the best damned band in America today.



16 Horsepower

An early EP, press versions came in a burlap sack. Maybe that’s a little too much on the nose, but the basic elements of the band are here, if not very refined. Too unvaried for the short running time, but worth a buy if you just need more 16HP. Highlight: the rough and hellish “Coal Black Horses.”

Sackcloth and Ashes

HP’s first full-length, and a lil’ less consistent than the preceding EP. While the instrumentation’s still a bit unvaried and the riffs aren’t all that inspired, the foundations are set for their following triumph. Highlight: “Black Soul Choir,” the catchiest and darkest song here (also a brilliant video by the Brothers Quay).

Low Estate

Grim and wheezing, like an old nag, this album lurches through ugly landscapes. Produced by John Parish, production quality is finally in place for 16HP to shine, however darkly – the music sounds like it could have been recorded in the 19th century. Highlights: “Low Estate,” a dark romp of banjo and bandoneon with bleakly suggestive lyrics, and “Golden Rope,” a “Black Soul Choir” of its own.

Secret South

Produced by the band, and their best yet. The unrelieved (save for the “Nobody ‘Cept You” Dylan cover) darkness doesn’t get overwhelming ’cause 16HP finally paced an album just right. Highlights: “Clogger,” the fastest and hardest number on the record – a rough rock ‘n’ roll opener – and “Poormouth,” the best lyrics of D.E.E.’s career. See our Secret South review.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com