There’s no easy entry point for a group like Sunburned Hand of the Man, if only because they’ve simply done so much. The psych-rock/free-folk collective, formed in Boston in the late ’90s, boasts a catalog 80-some releases deep—some of them limited cassette and CD-R releases, all of them readily available to hear on Bandcamp for those willing to make the journey. And it’s a lengthy journey to be sure, through free-form acoustic drift, groove-heavy psychedelic rock, some choogling, some noodling, some of it embalmed in lo-fi tape deck hiss and some of it imbued with smoke and fire. Music just kind of comes out of Sunburned Hand of the Man, or rather it flows through them and materializes on stage or in the studio and on tape reel or hard drive, and it just keeps going.
Or at least it did for the better part of a decade. From 1998 to 2008, the group released music at what seemed like monthly intervals, documents of where they were as a musical collective if not necessarily always marketable, canonical entries. After a series of albums recorded with Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, their output simply stopped for eight or nine albums, resuming unexpectedly with 2019’s Headless. The group likewise found a new motivation to revisit some unreleased sessions from 2007 and 2008, and a fire beneath them to pursue new weird frontiers, the likes of which are collected on new LP Pick A Day to Die.
Pick A Day to Die is, after more than two decades of playing, performing, exploring and deconstructing, one of the strongest summaries of Sunburned Hand of the Man’s musical universe to date. It’s as accessible and musically curious as they’ve ever sounded, and just as disorientingly eclectic—the album opens with serene, gorgeous plucks of acoustic guitar in the meditative “Dropped A Rock” and closes with the harsh, sludgy hardcore drive of “Prix Fixe,” a reminder after all this time of the group’s roots as Boston punks Shit Spangled Banner back in the mid-’90s.
No idea is ever really repeated on Pick A Day to Die (which, for the record, is the most badass title the group ever dreamed up), save for the meta-principle that all ideas are valid. The throughline is the band’s improvisational spirit, which is present in all seven of the album’s tracks, whether beneath Shannon Ketch’s Beefheart-ian blues-bark in the title track (“Let’s feel the midnight“) or in the blissful kosmische pulses of standout track “Flex.” There’s a nocturnal heaviness that drives the material, their lineage tracing back not just to Zappa or Beefheart or the Dead but to Can (especially on the supremely bizarre “Initials”), Amon Duul II and Hawkwind, even Black Flag. The psychedelic swirl of “Black Lights” emits an ethereal mist on its surface, but the rhythm beneath it is grounded and tense. And when “Prix Fixe” finally gives way to a cosmic dirge after its punk rock sludgefeast, its intergalactic portal opened via some spiritually transcendent soloing from J Mascis, there’s still something colossal and powerful about it despite the wide open space.
There’s a weirdness to Pick A Day to Die that unifies the disparate sounds throughout the album—a freedom that’s bound by spirit rather than specific sonic ideas. There’s a joy in wandering, in stepping outside of bounds and of fucking things up in just the right way that Sunburned Hand of the Man arrive upon one of their best sets of songs to date—and they are in large part songs rather than simply ideas or exercises. But as far as ideas go, even after dozens of recordings and more than 20 years, there’s still more than a few left in the quiver.
Label: Three Lobed
Watch Sunburned Hand of the Man’s new video for “Flex” below.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.