The first thing one notices about the hard rock band hIPNOSTIC is the jarring visual image. Two rock star-looking guys out front with a drummer appearing every bit a nerdy high school science teacher on the drum riser in back. Blake Hastings, lead vocals and guitar dressed all in black; long-haired Rob Swanson on bass and vocals and the bespectacled, buzz cut ‘n plain white T-shirt Dave Michel on drums. (Once Michel began pounding his kit all thoughts of “does this guy really fit in” are quickly dispelled.)
The music of hIPNOSTIC explores the darker side of hard rock/heavy metal. Heavy subject matter in the lyrics are paired with equally heavy riffs, but Hastings is a traditional singer as opposed to a growler, which is a good thing. He and Swanson match up quite well while singing vocal harmonies.
One of the highlights of the six-song set list (the House of Blues gave each band on the bill only 30 minutes) was a cover of the timeless Bill Withers R&B hit Ain’t No Sunshine. hIPNOSTIC’s version was completely unrecognizable from the original, which is arguably the mark of a good cover. So many artists put out cover versions of hits that are mere note note-for-note recreations of the original. It is much more challenging, intriguing and thought-provoking to twist and turn a cover so it truly becomes your own. Props to hIPNOSTIC for taking a chance and pulling it off.
One of the more unexpected and tender moments of the gig is when Hastings wished his mother, who was in attendance, a happy birthday saying “You were the one who put a guitar in my hand.” Who says metal dudes have no heart?
The band saved perhaps the most intense song of the night for last. Blister is representative of hIPNOSTIC’s heavy feel, which is derived in part due to the alternate tunings that Hastings and Swanson use. The following is musician geek talk, but according to Hastings, they used drop C# on the first four songs and drop B on the last two. In addition, the two work on balancing their low-end frequencies using amp and effect settings so that the sound, as Hastings put it, is “thick and full, especially being a three-piece band.” Which brings up a good point. One of the limitations of trios is that when the guitar player is soloing, the sound usually suffers as there is no rhythm guitarist to fill in the sound. No matter how skilled the drummer and bassist may be, it is nearly impossible to match the sound of the studio versions of the songs.
In hIPNOSTIC’s case, this limitation is overcome to a large degree due to the work that Hastings and Swanson do with their tunings and frequency balancing. Hastings isn’t a shredder who plays a lot of long guitar solos, but when he would take a solo it was remarkable how strong and full the sound was during his lead guitar work.
Anyone whose taste in music leans towards the heavier side will probably enjoy seeing hIPNOSTIC in a setting where they have the opportunity to play a full set.
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