It’s been five years since The Builders And The Butchers last put out a record, but Hell & High Water – their latest – more than makes up for the delay.
The band formed in Portland, but the members are now spread out and separated by state boundaries and an ocean in one case. Getting this record made meant overcoming geography, the pandemic and more. Most of the members live in Oregon, Colorado and Washington, but bassist Willy Kunkle is a boat captain in Malta, so the rest of the members joined hm there in 2019, moving into a boathouse in the marina to work on the album. “Through the fall and winter of 2019, we would gather weekly, make a fire, drink beer and whiskey and try to find some cohesiveness in these tunes,” said singer Ryan Sollee. “This gathering place was the most inspiring we have had in any creative process for any album up to date.”
And despite what came next, the album is still remarkably cohesive, from the opening strum and Sollee’s plaintive vocals on the first song “The River,” to the closing, emotionally powerful “Sonoran Highway Song.” In early 2020, after laying down the initial drum tracks in the studio, the pandemic and global quarantines forced the band to finish the record remotely. Add to that the fact that members had to deal with raging wildfires and riots in streets. As a result, the performances on Hell & High Water are starkly emotional, both the vocals and the playing for the band’s most impactful record yet in their almost two decades together. You can hear it in the sonic doom of “West Virginia,” a character song about hiding out from the cops and in the beautifully subtle “Nebraska,” (for what it’s worth, there is one more “state song” here, the raucous, “Montana,” slathered in fuzzy guitar and frenetic energy).
The record, across a dozen tracks, manages to be both emotionally tense at times and satisfyingly entertaining. Given all the obstacles that had to be cleared to make Hell & High Water come to fruition, the title is remarkable appropriate.