Released in May 2019, Ben Hemming’s third album, The Devil Beside Me is, it’s fair to say, a pitch dark slice of blues. Written from a place of alienation, “…that sense of isolation and detachment is a central theme that runs throughout the record” says Hemming, this is one album that’s unlikely to become a family sing-along favourite on long car journeys.
What it is, though, is a solid and impressive piece of work. Owing easily as much to American nu-metal as to blues or Americana, it brims with moody introspection and quasi-religious/occult imagery. Album producer, Mark Waterman, has previously done the honours for Depeche Mode, and its not hard to detect similar textural layers here.
Hemming’s baritone vocals, moving easily from lush richness to coarse growl, readily call to mind artists like Pearl Jam, Mark Lanegan and especially Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts, with those oddly stylised, exaggeratedly rounded vowel sounds that still seem incomprehensibly popular with a lot of (mostlly male) singers.
Opening track, ‘Dead Man Blues,’ fair scorches with rage and pain. ‘Never Had A Heart’ adds a mournful country steel wail before ‘I Know It To Be True’ rides in on a dirty, fat bass riff. ‘One Eyed King’ is a, buzzsawing song with slight reminders of Rocket From The Crypt’s ‘On A Rope’. ‘The Sea’, a relatively sparse, open track features a simple melody and lyrics as bleak as they come, like “my mother knew, the day she had me, a darker day she would never see” – which just feel like Hemming’s trying a bit too hard and rather straining for effect.
If it’s true to say that the album might have benefitted from a bit more variation in tone, as it all feels rather relentlessly heavy and dark, with little light or shade between the songs, it does have a hypnotic internal consistency.
Teenage me would absolutely have revelled in the utter bleakness of it all and especially those gloriously scuzzy guitars. Grown-up me still got a real buzz from listening, but also wanted to offer him a cup of tea and a chat about if he’s feeling OK.
There is, though, some light at the end of this murky tunnel, “…what might at first seem like quite a dark and soul-searching record, is really about taking a journey that leads to overcoming those demons and becoming a stronger and more developed person because of it”. Well, phew, that’s alright then.
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‘Inside’ – official video: