It seems Henry Derek Elis has as many pseudonyms as he does musical directions. His twenty-year long career has seen him use such variants as Derek Bonner, H. Derek Bonner, Henry Derek Bonner, and The Boy Elis; his current bands, Act of Defiance and Thrown Into Chaos, simply list him as Henry Derek. Though his many bands and projects have played death metal, black metal, progressive metal, goth metal, emo metal, thrash metal, his love of the country music of olde is well documented, and perhaps owing to the success of The Mountain Goats and Behemoth frontman Nergal’s Me and That Man, Mr H-henryderekelisbonnerwhatever has decided that now is the time for us to hear his perverse take on bluegrass. And you know what? It’s fucking perverse.
After setting an appropriately uneasy tone with the brief opening track “No Skin” (and how’s that for an introduction?), Mr Elis masterfully treads on groundwork laid by Southern bluegrass sickos before him. The album’s title track includes a particularly gruesome moment that involves an unassuming trade-off solo between a mandolin and an electric guitar: unassuming because it signifies the tumultuous marriage between HDE’s Southern roots and his career in metal, and gruesome because this gentle twist treats the song’s subject matter (hint: it’s worthy of a slasher flick) as coolly and nonchalantly as a pastor might treat a congregant inquiring about this week’s sermon. Layer a bloodcurdling fiddle weeping over this nauseating narrative, and you’re presented with a composition that only someone who was raised near a mental home in BFE, Redneckistan, USA could have created, and it supports the claim that the Devil doesn’t become your friend by frightening the bejeezus out of you, but by seducing and charming his way into your panties.
“What’s Left of Us” follows that gracious greeting, and paints a picture not of a Dario Argento film gone horribly awry, but of a smoky Appalachian hillside community unraveling at the seams. The song depicts fare typical of working-class country music of yore – love gone astray, booze, and so forth – and is noteworthy for John Schreffler Jr‘s masterfully sublime pedal steel, an instrument often blamed for country music’s reputation for being little more than farm emo. Schreffler’s pedal steel refuses to whine. Rather, it weeps like a forlorn ghost lamenting its still-living lover, the squall of Aubrey Richmond‘s fiddle inching you closer to this cursed, calcified scene. Henry Derek‘s gruff and bluesy throat tops it all off with the deferential indifference of an omniscient narrator, a knowing Crypt Keeper relating tales of a bygone era, accenting key turns his story with a dobro and a slide. “What’s Left of Us” is without doubt the most veritable bluegrass composition on “The Devil is My Friend,” unquestionably the album’s highlight, and is likely to perk up ears in Americana circles. It’s that good.
“The Devil is My Friend” is not only a showcase for Henry Derek’s mastery of a non-metal genre, but it also further demonstrates his remarkable vocal versatility. He long ago demonstrated his skills in the death growl, black screech, goth baritone, emo whine, thrash roar, and just straight-ahead singing departments. “The Devil is My Friend” sees him employing the raspy lilt of an ancient, disillusioned blues singer whose eyes have only seen humanity at its cruelest. This comes to the fore on the minimalist “Sing for the Dead Man” (which is accented by a Johnny Cash-inspired mariachi trumpet) and especially the funereal “Weeping Willow,” where he demonstrates that he ain’t bullshitting when he sings “I’ve got a bandit’s voice/ it never breaks/ it never bends.” Truth.
The raucous “Corpse Carver” is a departure from the twisted Americana we’ve heard thus far, trading in the dobros and mandolins for a filthy old electric guitar and a well-beaten combo amp. Part goth rock, part dirt rock, and unexpectedly layered with banjos, keys, and more pedal steel, “Corpse Carver” is the type of fare that would propel punks, metalheads, and outlaws alike to a unified, cross-cultural bounce. Think of it as David Allen Coe fronting Motorhead. Following that is the superb elegiac ten-minute sob story “If It’s Not Too Late,” with the doleful “M.O.M.” borrowing the former’s refrain. These two songs’ implicit companionship, however, is put into question when the listener notes that Henry Derek sings of “the sacred soul of truth” in one and feasting on his mother’s brains in the other. Are we examining two sides of the same sick fuck? Album closer “Graveyard Country Blues” lone lyric (I won’t spoil it for you) sure seems to indicate that.
For his debut solo release, Henry Derek Elis demonstrates unequivocally that despite dedicating over two decades to a laudable career in metal, he’s got this bluegrass and Americana thing down like a lifer. “The Devil is My Friend” marks a milestone in a remarkable, and remarkably overlooked, career that boasts many more peaks than valleys.
Released by: Independent
Release Date:October 26th, 2018
Genre: Bluegrass / Americana / Southern Gothic
- Henry Derek Elis / vocals, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, bass
- Sera Timms, Tara Vanflower, Jarboe Devereaux / vocals
- Kaitlin Wolfberg / violin
- Aubrey Richmond / fiddle
- Steve White / drums, keyboards
- John Shreffler Jr / pedal steel
- Cara Batema / accordion, piano
- Christopher Edward Brown / cello
- Mariachi Ausente / horns
- Neil Tiemann / guitar
- Jay Howard / textures
“The Devil is My Friend” Track-Listing:
- No Skin
- The Devil is My Friend
- What’s Left of Us
- Sing for the Dead Man
- Weeping Willow
- Corpse Carver
- If It’s Not Too Late
- Only Bones
- Graveyard Country Blues
At once captivating and nauseating, “The Devil is My Friend” masterfully documents psychological decay while demonstrating Henry Derek's Americana bonafides as he steps well outside his comfort zone, all the while subversively toying with horror fiction that would make King Diamond himself cringe.