Hochen - 'Strays'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

Last year in September, I spent time with a single entitled ‘Raised by Wolves.’ The track, released by a powerhouse indie one-man-band, Stu Leiter, was released under the moniker of TruckStop. Leiter’s full album is now available in its entirety with a name change to Hochen. The new record, which does include ‘Raised by Wolves,’ is nine tracks of bombastic, exciting indie rock. ‘Strays’ may be, quite honestly, one of the most enjoyable rock and roll endeavors the independent scene has produced in a very long time.

As aforementioned, Hochen is one man, Stu Leiter, and he writes, performs, and records every track. I mentioned last fall how impressive ‘Raised by Wolves’ was because Leiter had managed to harness an anthemic, massive sonic landscape all on his own. It was mixed strongly, and perhaps most importantly, you couldn’t tell it was one man playing each instrument. That’s the ultimate compliment to an act like this, that they fooled you into thinking they were a band.

The new eight tracks from Hochen on ‘Strays’ hold up to ‘Raised by Wolves’ masterfully. The tracks are hard-hitting, eclectic, and often somewhat experimental. ‘Man I Am,’ the opening of the album, is a fine culmination of all of that. The bizarre vocals, reverb-doused atmosphere, and erratic electric guitar riffing are reminiscent of an act like the Arctic Monkeys or Mini Mansions.

‘Dead Friends’ is a thick garage rocker with fantastic guitar banter, explosive percussion, and an underlying current of blues influence. ‘Dead Friends’ sounds like a track that Jack White would have written, especially in regard to Leiter’s instrumental performance. His vocals are deep, somewhat masked, and a bit difficult to decipher. I’d actually argue JJ Cale is a fine parallel to Leiter. Their vocal styles are eerily similar.

Like JJ Cale, Leiter isn’t a traditionally ‘good’ vocalist. I don’t think he’d get past the audition phase of a television talent show. Neither would have JJ Cale, though, and I think what Leiter lacks in finesse he wholly delivers in emotion and intensity. ‘Girl on Street,’ for example, offers one of the best vocal performances on the record. Leiter’s vocals meld into his instrumental landscape so well.

‘Raised by Wolves’ is as strong as it was last year, and it’s only strengthened by being surrounded by equally excellent tracks. Last year, I compared parts of the track to Josh Homme’s Queens of the Stone Age stylings. I think that is still an apt analysis, and you definitely hear tinges of QOTSA on tracks like ‘Lip Gloss.’ In particular, the guitar composition on ‘Lip Gloss’ is unforgettably good.

‘In the Weeds/Strays’ arrives after the album’s halfway point with an offering of different, but welcoming musical musings. I’d go as far to argue ‘In the Weeds/Strays’ is the best written track of the whole album. Hochen’s lyricism is sharp and the instrumentation backing it is so remarkably intense. These are tracks that’ll be a joy to blast at obscene volumes throughout this summer. I sincerely hope Leiter adds a live outfit to Hochen someday - these tracks deserve to be toured, blowing down the house night after night.

‘Altered’ is the weaker link of the nine, but not by much. The track just feels a bit aimless, especially after the laser-sharp precision of tracks like ‘Raised by Wolves,’ ‘Lip Gloss,’ and ‘In the Weeds/Strays.’ ‘No Worries’ picks up that slack beautifully, however, and ignites into one of the most sublime musical experiences on the album. I adore the latter points of the track, around 2:20, when Hochen turns down the amplitude in favor of softer explorations.

‘From My Backyard’ is a notable finale because it grabs bits and pieces of the rest of the record and mashes them together in fantastic harmony. The searing electric guitars, frank vocal delivery and lyricism, and intermittent electric organ sections are nothing but endless fun. That’s perhaps the most important part of ‘Strays’ - it is fun. There isn’t as much of that in the rock scene as there used to be.

‘Strays’ is a superb record - one of my favorite indie rock records I’ve delved into in the last year. It’s chock-full of insanely strong performances, which are only more impressive upon discovering they’re composed and executed by a single man. Stu Leiter has something impressive on his hands, and I can’t wait to see how the Hochen project continues to evolve - because it must evolve. I’d hate to see Hochen stagnate and fall into predictability. This record is awesome. Now, Leiter is faced with the challenge of upping his game even further.