By Eleni P. Austin
Divine Horsemen has just released a new album, nearly 35 years after they originally called it quits. The brainchild of Chris D. (ne’ Desjardins), the band rose from the ashes of Chris’ first group, The Flesh Eaters.
Like Mike Nesmith and Linda Ronstadt before him, Chris has always traveled to the beat of a different drum. A true polymath, his career trajectory has been a bit of a zig-zag. The Riverside native ditched the Inland Empire for the bright lights and big city of L.A. the minute he finished college in the mid ‘70s. An aspiring filmmaker, he earned his keep as an English teacher, and quickly connected with John Doe and Exene Cervenka at a poetry workshop in Venice. Around the same time, the Los Angeles Punk scene was taking shape. John had already formed X with guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake, but their sound truly coalesced when he invited his girlfriend Exene, to join the band.
Soon enough, Chris started writing for Slash, a Punk fanzine that focused on the spiky, primordial style that spilled out of outlier clubs like the Masque and Madame Wong’s. In 1978 Slash issued a 7” single from The Germs and quickly became a full-fledged indie record label. By 1980, they released The Germs’ first long-player, G.I. and X’s groundbreaking debut, Los Angeles. Concurrently, Chris began was performing around town, as front man for the first incarnation of his band, The Flesh Eaters.
Already a would-be filmmaker, writer and musician, Chris added another skill to his CV when Slash officially hired him as their A&R man. In short order, he became a sought-after producer, behind the soundboard for iconic albums by The Dream Syndicate, The Gun Club and Green On Red. In 1981, he recruited the best-loved line-up of The Flesh Eaters, temporarily poaching Dave Alvin (guitar) Bill Bateman (drums) and Steve Berlin (saxophone) from The Blasters, along with John Doe (bass) and DJ Bonebrake (percussion) from X.
Their debut, A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die was a combustible cocktail of Jazz, Blues, Stax/Volt, Country and Rockabilly. Lightning in a bottle, it was also a bit of a busman’s holiday, and it lasted until the guys returned to their own bands. Throughout the years, Chris led other Flesh Eater configurations, recording an additional four albums between 1982 and 1991.
By 1983, Chris was completely smitten with Julie Christensen, together, they formed Divine Horsemen. Their music felt as sacred and profane as their moniker, which was derived from Voodoo terminology. The core of the band was always Chris and Julie, but their ranks grew to include Peter Andrus, Matt Lee and Robyn Jameson. Although some critics labelled their sound “Arty Cowpunk,” that didn’t tell the whole story. As melodies blurred the lines between, Country, Punk and Roots Rock, the lyrics limned the same hard-boiled narratives of Chris’ literary heroes like Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy and Ambrose Bierce. Between 1984 and 1987, they released four long-players and an EP. While some band members struggled with substance issues, Chris and Julie had married but were already headed for divorce. The band came apart at the seams by 1988. In the ensuing years, Julie has sporadically released solo albums, toured extensively with Leonard Cohen and performed with everyone from Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka and Public Image Limited to John Doe, Van Dyke Parks and k.d. lang. Meanwhile, Chris has carved out an intriguing acting career, beginning with a starring role in Alison Anders’ directorial debut, Border Radio, as well as playing integral parts in the Kevin Costner Thriller, No Way Out and the first Lethal Weapon movie. By the mid ‘90s, he finally released a solo album.
At the start of the 21st century, Chris shelved his music career, concentrating instead on more literary and cinematic pursuits. He’s wrote poetry and novels, he also published “Gun And Sword” an exhaustive encyclopedia on Japanese cinema. In 2004, he directed his first film, I Pass For Human.
A year later the all-star line-up of The Flesh Eaters reconvened to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties music fest. There was talk of a full-fledged tour, but Dave, Bill, John, DJ and Steve were were unable to break away from their day jobs. Trying to schedule a Flesh Eaters tour became an exercise in frustration. But by 2018, the Rock & Roll planets aligned and they booked their first real tour. The energy on stage proved so electric they decided to make a record.
I Used To Be Pretty arrived in early 2019, an explosive mix of eight originals and three canny covers. The album earned rave reviews and landed on plenty of influential Top 10 lists. The Flesh Eaters resounding success motivated Chris to reactivate Divine Horsemen. Julie needed very little coaxing, as she had been lobbying for a reunion for some time. Peter Andrus quickly jumped on board, but sadly Robyn Jameson had tragically passed away in 2018, the result of a street assault. Luckily, Bobby Permanent, a longtime collaborator of Peter’s was recruited for bass duties. It all came together when X/Flesh Eaters compadre DJ Bonebrake stepped behind the drum kit. The result is Divine Horsemen’s fifth official long-player, Hot Rise Of An Ice Cream Phoenix. The opening track, “Mystery Writers” unspools like Classic ‘40s Film Noir. Prowling guitars connect with cagey bass lines plunky piano notes and a spelunking beat. Chris spits out the first verse, a barrage of arcane verbiage; “Bliss is out of date, a stolen car from out of state, my exaltation got driven…to burning hell… I died right before I cried out the story I could tell.” Julie picks up the where he leaves off, her mien terse and laconic; “I made it my vocation putting aside elation, our story’s in Navajo code, I made it my vocation putting aside elation, taking me where I don’t want to go, secrets… a million pieces….down a twisted road.” Their symbiotic disharmony fuses on the chorus which explicates the cracked allure of writing mystery fiction. The arrangement accelerates slightly on the break as Peter rips the first of two slightly shambolic, oscillating guitar solos before the song abruptly shudders to a stop.
Much like the last Flesh Eaters effort, this album arrives armed with a clutch of eclectic cover songs. Of course, for Chris D., regurgitating a Top 40 Pop song is anathema, so the listener is treated to three obscurities and a couple of deep tracks from well-known artists. Probably the weirdest and most wonderful is “Can’t You See,” written by Charlie Cuva and the (late) filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr., for the latter’s 1970 cinematic opus, Pound. Scratchy, sinewy guitar riffs sidle around tensile bass lines and a snapback beat. The stripped-down arrangement makes room for Chris and Julie’s vocal gymnastics. Like a low budget version of the Bickersons, they trade caustic quips; “I’d love to kick your ass right through the middle class” and “you never felt the pain, there’s sawdust in your brain” Insistent cowbell accompanies the expletive-laden chorus, by the break. Peter cuts loose with a scorching guitar solo.
“Any Day Now” was originally recorded by Knoxville’s own Swamp Rock/Power Pop trio, the Tim Lee 3. Bramble-thick guitars, dense bass lines and a thwocking beat transforms song into a Southern Gothic dirge. The dour arrangement is matched by Schleprock-y sentiments like “Living in anticipation of a busted dream, things are never as good as they used to seem, any day now it’s going to end up in a ditch, another failure or luck without a hitch.” A heap o’ guitars meander on the break, and rusty riffage gives way to sinister notes that manage to ratchet up the menace. Nearly buried under the sturm und drang is this sagacious observation; “You can’t learn to succeed until you learn to fail.”
“Strangers” was written by Nashville cats Johnny Duke and Will Kimbrough. Taking a page from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s playbook, Divine Horsemen recast the acoustic lament as a skronky, sonic soundscape. Guitars, bass, piano and drums all bleed together as Chris and Julie parse the intricacies of a failing romance. Distorto- Countrified guitar forms an uneasy alliance with stately piano notes before fading to close.
The Horsemen take a pass at Patti Smith’s lust-to-love anthem, “25th Floor.” Serpentine guitars slither through the rattlesnake shake. What begins as a carnal conversation; “We explore the Men’s room, we don’t give a shit, Ladies lost electricity, take vows inside of it,” quickly gives way to the conventional; “Love’s war, love’s cruel… I feel it swirling around you, I feel it feeling no pain, I’m losing out with you baby..” Like a Country-Punk George and Tammy, Chris and Julie navigate the rocky shoals of romance face-to-face. Guitars stack and dissemble, as bass lines search and destroy on the break, whipping into a dervished frenzy before powering down.
Finally, they offer up a fairly faithful version of a Jefferson Airplane deep cut, “Ice Cream Phoenix.” A shimmery slice of late ‘60s Psychedelia, dissonant harmonies are wed to bendy-but-muscular guitars, angular bass and a walloping beat. Suitably hallucinatory lyrics like “Shelves of books in your mirror reflected, the sidewalks and alleys that you’ve seen, show colors change as the images fade in the magical vanishing memory machine,” are bookended by a magnificently modal bridge.
In recent years, Chris has made a practice of recycling and retrofitting his older songs, seamlessly integrating them into new settings. That occurs a couple of times here with “Handful Of Sand” and “Mind Fever Soul Fire.” The former originally appeared as the title-track of Divine Horsemen’s final EP. Here, it’s been given the once over twice as slashing guitars collide with cantilevered bass and a piledriving beat. The lyrics feel desperate, but there’s no getting used to it; “Days slip through my fingers, years of crumbling dust, nights I can barely remember, daylight I can’t trust, the deepest heart of night makes the world so small, diamonds in a sky of black leather, I got to stand before I fall, what’s in the heart of man? It’s like holding a handful of sand/I’m powerless I confess, I need to change my life, it’s a mess, I need something to live for, I can’t sink any lower, I’m powerless, I confess.” Manic guitars stall and accelerate on the break.
The latter was featured on Chris’ 1995 solo album. The arrangement and instrumentation is equal parts Cowboy and Conjunto. Buckaroo guitar riffs ride partner with slapdash bass lines, South Of The Border accordion and suave beat. Fever dream lyrics offer a one-sided portrait of a Follie a deux; “Mind fever’s burning my bridges, my friends think I’ve gone mad, my heart’s a sad balloon getting ready to burst/A shadow from the past is weeping like a ghost and my lips are my undoing, because I’m too hungry for a kiss.”
Julie contributes “Falling Forward,” which she co-wrote with Lathan McKay. Like a long-lost Paisley Underground nugget, jingle-jangle guitars take Byrdsy flight atop lofty bass and a chugging rhythm. On the first verse, Julie seems ready to throw in the towel; “Mirror, Mirror, can we talk? I’ve given my thinking all I’ve got…blown awake, my mind, it’s time to fall.” Then Chris leaps into the fray, injecting a brash note of synergistic sanguinity; “The devil may care but I don’t anymore, my triumph came through a lot of pain before…lost and found, my mind/I like to think that you are me, my heart’s just a fair-weather friend, you’re a shapeshifter, can’t you see? This race is never going to end.” Kaleidoscopic guitars add a burst of technicolor to the monochromatic mood.
Like the opening cut, the album’s most assured songs were written in 2020. “Barefoot In The Streets” is surprisingly delicate, acoustic notes are matched by muted bass lines willowy piano, tinkling hi-hat and a tambourine shake. Lyrics like “About to die, I’ll ask you one favor…I’ll tie your wrists with the braids of my hair… crush my fists with those new boots that you wear/Our daughter weeps for all the wrongs you have done, our love’s bitter taste says we are done” straddles the line between outlaw saga and couples’ counseling.
On “No Evil Star (Cold And Raw)” ringing acoustic guitars and a see-saw beat are eclipsed by Chris’ wobbly croon. Hard times have befallen the sole survivor of a broken romance; “It’s cold in the alley, cold in the streets, cold in the backyard without any feet, it’s raw in the bedroom, raw between the sheets, raw in the kitchen without any meat.” A spiraling guitar solo on the break leads to a woozy, Waltz-y outro.
Best of all is the penultimate track, “Stony Path.” This song lands somewhere between a Greek Tsiftateli, Love’s epochal “Alone Again, Or” and the Monkees’ surprisingly potent “Valleri,” Powered by rippling guitar riffs, sinewy bass lines and an infectious handclap beat, the track crackles with electricity. The buoyant arrangement nearly camouflages dour lyrics like “A thorny rocky road, brambles in my rocky head, lost highway and storms of dread, where futile tears are shed. watering flowers streams of blood, tears come a drowning flood.” Clusters of fluttery Oud notes from Bobby weave in and out of the mix and fully break out as the song fades to black.
The album closes with the ramshackle “Love Cannot Die.” Acoustic notes lattice over electric riff-age, brittle bass lines, a syrupy string section and a rock steady beat. A lengthy rumination on love and loss, ambitious lyrics are matched by the expansive arrangement and instrumentation.
Co-produced and mixed by Chris and Craig Parker Adams, Divine Horseman received some assistance from Doug Lacy, who added piano, accordion and strings. Hot Rise Of An Ice Cream Phoenix is by turns visceral, elegant, vulgar, pithy, and sprawling. It’s also a rollicking good time.