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The Boston Phoenix A Higher Hell

The gospel of Sixteen Horsepower.

By Mark Woodlief

JANUARY 26, 1998:  The Christian pop that shows up on the charts these days comes in two basic varieties. There's the holy kind, which LeAnn Rimes is currently peddling on her You Light Up My Life: Songs of Inspiration (Curb). And there's the unholy kind, best represented by the shock-rocking tactics of Marilyn Manson and their not-so-subtly titled Antichrist Superstar (Nothing/Interscope). Somewhere in between these two extremes -- which are really just two sides of the same coin -- lies the restless soul of David Eugene Edwards and his Denver-based roots band Sixteen Horsepower.

"I make my music for people who don't believe in God," declares Edwards, who plays guitar, banjo, hurdy-gurdy, and concertina on Sixteen Horsepower's new Low Estate (A&M; in stores this Tuesday). "I think what I'm supposed to do is pretty much scare the shit outta people. And I really hope I do, because maybe that's what they need."

Edwards comes pretty close to achieving that goal on Low Estate, the band's sophomore disc, with songs like "Black Lung" and "Brimstone Rock," sinewy slide guitars, ominous cellos, unhinged vocal yelps, and apocalyptic Southern Gothic nuances. In a half-crazed, half-spooked voice, Edwards sings of fables with a kind of sacred dread, pleading on "Brimstone Rock": "I beseech the Lord clear my head/Before once again I scar the soul/Of that girl in my bed." Amy Grant this ain't -- Low Estate is both frighteningly good and occasionally just plain frightening.

Edwards is familiar with scare tactics: his grandfather preached a strict gospel of fear in a Colorado Nazarene church when Edwards was a child. "It wasn't," as he recalls in a phone conversation from his home in Denver, "the healthiest church to be brought up in."

It has, however, inspired the Sixteen Horsepower aesthetic -- a music informed simultaneously by fear of and professed love for God, as well as an ongoing pursuit of redemption. "All I've ever cared about was knowing God," says Edwards. "There's no way I could ever get away from it, and there's no way I would ever want to."

Married at 17, Edwards left his grandfather's church (with the old preacher promising eternal damnation) to seek a more individualistic Christian path. He left Colorado for the Boston area in 1986, eventually settling for a communal existence in Revere. His band Blood Flower played "three or four times" before Edwards returned briefly to Colorado and then resettled in Southern California, where he found carpentry work at Roger Corman's film studio. There he met the two Parisians who would become Sixteen Horsepower's rhythm section -- drummer Jean-Yves Tola and bassist Pascal Humbert. Along with Edwards's multi-instrumental pal Jeffrey-Paul Norlander, the foursome would eventually return to Colorado as Sixteen Horsepower. Although Norlander and Humbert were not part of the line-up that recorded the band's 1996 debut, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes (A&M), they rejoined just before the group headed to Lafayette, Louisiana, to work with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey) on Low Estate.

Edwards has kept up his Boston ties, recording versions of several Low Estate songs at Morphine bassist Mark Sandman's home studio. "Mark and I have a good friendship. I come out there every now and again to see him, and I think we're going to tour with each other in a few months."

On Low Estate, Edwards's redemptive studies of good and evil, sin and salvation, and the sacred and the profane are embellished to good effect by Parish's xylophone, organ, and percussion contributions. The album's complex shuffle-down elegance collides with fiery ensemble musicianship to create what one critic ironically (and lazily) described as "demonic hillbilly music." Low Estate is a bit more challenging than that.

"It's been a struggle in a lot of ways," Edwards says. "The music we play is not commercially successful music, really. I could play a different style of music that would make me more money."

Does he have an "MMMBop" in him?

"Maybe," he replies with a hearty laugh, "but emotionally I could never let myself do it."

No surprise that, as deep as his emotional ties to religion go, he feels the same about contemporary Christian music.

"I don't make my music for people who believe in God to get together and dance around. I think that's fine, and if God wants you to make that kind of music, then good, go for it. But that's not the kind of music I'm supposed to make."

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