Venturing into Scott Simpson’s garden is a little shocking. Tucked away behind Simpson’s unassuming neighborhood house is a mini oasis complete with a pond, three cats, cacti, and a myriad of plants and flowers. It’s a peaceful piece of suburban bliss that stands in stark contrast to Simpson’s previous musical outfit, local doom metal legends Beneath Oblivion. But just listen to the self-titled debut album from his latest project, Hemlock Branch, out September 2, for it all to make sense, namely an adoration for hidden beauty and organic growth.
Hemlock Branch first started out as a three-piece band, consisting of Simpson (guitar and vocals), Derda Karakaya (bass), and David Howell (drums). “David and I worked together at Junker’s Tavern and we hit it off, and then we started jamming. Derda joined before we even moved to the States, because we were sending him rough recordings of what David and I was working, so he kind of learned that before he even came here,” Simpson says.
Karakaya moved from Istanbul to Cincinnati at the end of 2019, completing initial line-up, and the band was set to record a demo in early 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on their plans. COVID-19 allowed the band to more fully develop their goals of sorting out who was going to sing on the record. Simpson initially didn’t want the mic duties and was the one to recommend Amy Jo Combs as a vocalist, before agreeing to share the duties at Combs’ suggestion. Simpson’s former bandmate Keith Messerle (synth and piano) has come out of retirement from live music to become the final piece of the puzzle. Once the lineup was complete, the band navigated “unprecedented times” to finally record what would become their debut album, with Combs and Messerle helping to cultivate what Simpson, Karakaya and Howell had initially built.
What was built is not easy to define. There are, of course, heavy, metal-adjacent elements – Simpson’s unique branch of ungodly screams ensures the album won’t hit the Pop charts anytime soon – but each track is layered in such a way that the multitude of influences from the band members be allowed to shine through. “In the group, everyone listens to everything, so there are no gender restrictions. We can write whatever we want,” Karakaya says.
Elements of classic rock, jazz, ambient synth and tons of other disparate sounds intertwine in totally unexpected ways. Often the individual instrumentation intertwines and crescendos before falling back into the mix and giving another instrument a moment to shine. The mix of Simpson and Combs’ clean vocals with Simpson’s pained screams works much the same, with each vocal element often swirling with each other. It all adds up to an album that sounds much bigger and more complex than a five-person line-up would lead one to believe.
The lyrics also rely on a layered and elaborate approach to storytelling. Simpson based the lyrics on a very personal loss. “A lot of what influenced [the album] was the suicide of a friend of mine a few years before; I had not treated him correctly. It was sort of part of that healing process. said Simpson.
While Simpson has focused the writing on dealing with very personal loss and moving on, the big picture has moved beyond its test into more universal trials that we all face. Combs explains, “I felt like, thematically, it rippled through this world that we lived in. Even though there was this heavy message, I felt like I could relate to that, but I could also relate to what was happening in the world at that time. People were struggling…I don’t think I could have connected to the songs at that time unless I really felt the message behind it.
While the lyrical content and the circumstances in which the band comes together are undeniably bleak, Hemlock Branch was able to craft a surprisingly hopeful album. Rather than fall into genre tropes, the band let their output grow beyond convention into a surprisingly invigorating record. “It felt like a pet project that turned into a passion project,” says Messerle. Simpson agrees, saying, “[The album] is very refreshing to me. It’s like a breath of fresh air. »
For a band whose members have experience in everything from thrash metal to indie and everything in between, coming together under a singular banner is pretty rare. To bring them together at a time when most bands have either taken a break or crumbled and found themselves on the other side with an achievement such as hemlock branch, it is downright unheard of. Hemlock Branch did just that, taking the risk and using painful momentum, allowing it to blossom, and letting it grow into something beautiful. It may be hidden away, like Simpson’s Garden, but once you find it, you’ll be forever grateful you did.
Hemlock Branch will hold an album release show for their self-titled debut album at Northside Tavern on September 17th. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. More informations : facebook.com.
To purchase Hemlock Branch’s self-titled album, visit hemlockbranch.bandcamp.com.
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