When Angus McFarland from the Portland metal band Hessian was a kid, he had a book that greatly influenced the way he writes music today: “The Glass Harmonica,” also known as “The Book of Weird,” a compendium of otherworldly things written by Barbara Nynde Byfield. The fantastic creatures, dark spirits and spells described in the book stuck with him throughout his life, right up until the present.
“It was like an encyclopedia of weird stuff, like a guidebook to a semi-mythical medieval world, with ogres and sorcerers and kings. That has had a big influence on my writing,” said McFarland, guitarist and vocalist for the band. “I think that music and magic go well together. Music is a kind of magic, it can make people think and feel things, or evoke strange worlds.”
With Hessian, McFarland and his bandmates — guitarist and co-vocalist Salli Wason, drummer Tim Webber and bassist Dann Rich — create those fantastic worlds, with a heaping cupful of occult blackness added into the mix, and a splash of humor, too. On “Bachelor of Black Arts,” the band’s highly anticipated debut full length, there’s devil women, witches, pagan rituals and an alchemist seeking to discover the mysteries of the universe, through whatever gruesome means necessary.
The lyrics are just dressing, though. What’s important is the music — a smart, highly entertaining blend of classic metal like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and contemporary psychedelic and occult metal like Black Mountain or the Sword. There’s maybe just a little KISS campiness in there, too.
McFarland is the only Portland native in Hessian; Wason is from Union, Webber is from Bangor, Rich is from Winthrop. McFarland and Wason met first, playing in another band before forming Hessian with Webber in 2009. They all shared a love of metal, of course, but a love of classic metal — stuff that today might even be called classic rock by those in more brutal, blacker, heavier metal bands.
“We wanted to start a band that went back to the beginnings of metal for inspiration, because we thought a lot of modern stuff was really boring,” said McFarland. “Going back to square one seemed like a way to move forward.”
The band put out on EP, “Old, Wild and Free,” in 2010. It then took them four years to record and finish “Bachelor of Black Arts,” which came out last month after much revision and reworking both in and out of the studio. In those four years the band played shows all over the Northeast, from their beloved home venue of Geno’s Rock Club in Portland to other bastions of metal fandom, like Brooklyn and Worcester, Mass.
“We actually recorded it twice, and didn’t like the first one, so we re-recorded it. We wanted to be really sure that it was everything it could be, and it took us a while to figure out how to get the sounds it needed,” said McFarland. “In the end a really simple process and natural approach got us there. Now that we have those things figured out the next album should come much faster.”
Right now, Hessian is in the final leg of a cross-country tour to support “Bachelor;” the band is playing in Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh this week before wrapping up the 25-date tour in Brooklyn on Sept. 29. “Bachelor” is available to stream or purchase on Bandcamp.