Microshift by HookwormsRelease date: February 2, 2018
Label: Domino Records
Hookworms first record in three years is likely to be perceived as somewhat of a departure for those that have been onboard since 2013’s Pearl Mystic. Gone are the reverb-sodden, wild man shrieks from singer/guitarist MJ. He now appears more introspective and measured with his heartfelt vocal melodies. The guitars are taking a bit more of a backseat too and, instead, at the forefront are synthesisers and looped samples. Whilst this has led to a more ‘poppy’ sound, the ethos of the band hasn’t changed one bit. They still deliver perpetually driving songs which build up into smothering walls of noisy delight. It’s merely the palette that has been modified. In the past three years since The Hum, discernible influences from techno to synth-pop have crept into their sound and the stockpiled arsenal of instruments reflects this. Greater importance is now placed on shifting dynamics and meticulous track construction and the emotional heft is to be found in the lyrical content rather than the previous blueprint of bludgeoning fuzz.
In addition to that there have been changes, difficulties, and tragedies that have beset the band since that last record. There have been battles with mental illness, deaths of friends and family members, deterioration of relationships, and, in December 2015, Storm Eva caused mass flooding in and around Leeds (Hookworms hometown). This resulted in hefty destruction throughout the city and, in particular, to Suburban Home Studio – the headquarters for Hookworms and the livelihood of MJ (who has produced/engineered the likes of Martha, Joanna Gruesome, and TRAAMS). A successful GoFundMe campaign helped to get things back on track and, once the studio was rebuilt, the band immediately went in and, like a soggy Lazarus, recorded Microshift. After going through all of this, it really should come as no surprise that the new album sounds a little different to the template of ‘Away/Towards’ (Pearl Mystic’s opening track).
Opener and initial single ‘Negative Space’ begins with staccato electronic spurts and a thumping kick drum, both signalling a change of intent towards a more danceable brand of digital psych rock. Droney synths swish lucidly, providing an upbeat and vigorous soundtrack that juxtaposes melancholy lyrics. Chants of “My guts did swirl” and “How long’s forever” suggest a nauseous disbelief when faced with an emotional sucker punch. And, much like during a poignant schism, the subdued guitars on this track cut in and demand their place in a way that is reminiscent of a David Foster Wallace quote – “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it”.
The vital propulsion that Hookworms have made into their calling card is still ever present though and, on ‘Ullswater’, this is combined with robotic bleeps forming figures of 8 around drums which grow from quiet, gentle percussion to storming bass thumps and snare pops. Overdriven guitars reappear, forming that dynamic edge which helps to push things over and on. Garbled typing then drifts into the emotive track ‘The Soft Season’ which is a cocktail of apologies, desire, regret, and gratitude elegantly swaddled in forlornly uplifting chords. The ticker-bothering refrain “You can hide it from your face, you know. Can see it on your face, you know” will stick with you long past the dwindling saxophone trickle that sees it out.
Placing the Richard Formby collaboration ‘Opener’ smack bang in the centre of this track listing seems to be a knowing wink to any potential detractors. It follows the format of their previous records, albeit with cleaner vocals, and paints an image of sun-dappled car rides and hedonistic caterwauling at passing glorious scenery. It would make a solid opening track to any album and, by inserting it at the halfway point, Hookworms have subverted any expectations that are put upon them. It also seems to contain a sliver of optimism with the line “We can help each other”. ‘Each Time We Pass’ follows this with guest vocals from Virginia Wing’s Alice Merida Richards. It’s a tearful goodbye. A letting go. The kind that throat lumps were formed for. The bass drum putters away to silence much like a vanishing train carrying away an indefinitely departing lover.
And then we are into even more wretched territory. ‘Boxing Day’ is a paranoid, gloomy retreat. It is dark post punk punctuated by stabs of frantic free form saxophone and thrashing guitars. It taps into a sunless and palpable fug that descends so easily upon many people over the Christmas period. A sense of heavy foreboding, of worthlessness, of not having done (or not being) enough. Nothing but reminders of expectations and flaws taped up with past pains and disappointments. But, like Christmas, these seemingly relentless feelings pass. And pass ‘Boxing Day’ does. Rather abruptly. Right in the midst of a dejected “All things always fall apart”. Unexpectedly. So out of the blue that track length comparisons had to be made to ensure there were no defects. But there was nothing corrupted. These things, when they crumble, can often feel like they’ve been ruptured by some form of external, malicious code.
‘Reunion’ drifts in with twinkling keys and a warm oscillation. Lazy saxophone, courtesy of Christopher Duffin (one half of Hookworms side project – XAM), unspools over reclined heads. It whispers safety, comfort, and reassurance. Ideal for a post holidays lull. Lyrically this album churns through the depths of the past few years. It seems that the sonic textures are there to provide a hopeful counterpoint to the heavy-hearted content. Lyrics such as “Facing down, I’m feeling awful now”, “Thirty years of burning questions but now you can’t reply”, or “This party is nearly over, lately love feels cynical” all give the impression that battles with anxiety and depression are still being fought. So when, on ‘Shortcomings’, MJ sings “Hold out. You gotta hold out. It’ll come” this feels like the beam of a flashlight at the end of a digestive tunnel for these wriggling Hookworms. And it provides a little optimism that the musical paradigm on this record is reflected as support that stretches beyond the remit of the band.