Hookworms’ third album Microshift sees the Leeds psych rockers take a krautrock turn to underpin lyrics that explore loss and trauma.By Dave Faulkner.
Yesterday Hookworms released their third studio album, the deceptively titled Microshift. It’s deceptive because Microshift’s marriage of electronic music and rock-based psychedelia marks a major shift in the sound for the Leeds-based ravers. Hookworms have reinvented themselves sonically, melodically and lyrically, and in the process they’ve come up with the most adventurous and satisfying record of their career.
“Negative Space” opens the album with a heavily filtered vocal sample that loops on itself robotically. Percussive synthesisers occasionally chirrup until a four-on-the-floor kick drum introduces a synth bass, solidifying the rhythm track. Simple organ chords and processed guitars join the fray, adding harmonic thickness. After the random-sounding drum fills settle into a motorik groove, Hookworms’ singer, MJ, begins his tale of two bereavements, one recent and the other imminent:
I sat in here for hours while I thought of what you wrote
I cried in here for hours while I looked at what you wrote
I stopped checking for the hour from the last time that we spoke
My gut sinks low, my gut sinks low
And if we’re really doing this and you’re sure it’s not
a joke then
How long’s forever?
How long’s forever?
When I interviewed MJ a couple of months ago – the members of Hookworms prefer to be identified only by their initials – he confirmed that “Negative Space” was written after the death of their close friend Michael “Archie” Archibald, who was also their concert sound engineer. “The first verse is about that,” MJ told me. “The first verse is for him, and the second verse is about my dad, who has Alzheimer’s and is also terminally ill … A lot of the record is kinda for my dad.”
Having recently lost a parent to Alzheimer’s myself, I could easily relate to the feelings of bewilderment, anger and regret MJ has captured in these lyrics. Seven minutes long, “Negative Space” is heavy-going emotionally but towards the end the track modulates to a major key from its relative minor, creating a contradictory note of triumph even as it accompanies MJ repeating the song’s poignant last line, “I still see you every time I’m down”. The music is grasping for a resolution, but that’s something the lyrics are unable to countenance.
Track two kicks in hard on its heels and, musically, Hookworms find themselves on more familiar ground. “Static Resistance” is the sort of fast-paced psychedelic rocker that built their reputation. In fact, this was the first song composed for Microshift and it serves as a bridge between this album and the one prior, The Hum. Nevertheless, “Static Resistance” has considerably more nuance than their previous work. It begins frantically but soon calms to a steady pulse, like a jet finding smooth air after climbing through a turbulent cloud layer. Once again, the shifting organ chords bring some harmonic counterpoint to the krautrock drone underpinning the song. MJ’s lyrics hark back to a theme that threads through Hookworms’ first two albums: mental health and his ongoing battle with depression. And again, the energy and exuberance of the music masks the doleful nature of the words, the song ending with the repeated refrain, “I’m facing down, I’m feeling awful”, before concluding on the bleak line, “False hope forever”.
Hookworms started eight years ago as a hobby for a group of like-minded musicians, inspired by their love of records by Can, Spacemen 3, LCD Soundsystem, The Modern Lovers and a plethora of others. At the time they had low expectations, as evidenced by bass player MB’s statement in an early interview: “It’d be fair to say that the music we play is fairly self-indulgent, so obviously it’s an added bonus if anyone likes listening to it or coming to see us. I think we’d just like to play some good shows with bands we love, and maybe put a few records out.”
The obscurity MB imagined didn’t last long. After the release of their first EP, they came to the attention of Julian Cope, who advised his blog’s followers, “Do not miss this Shoegazing Skynyrd, brothers’n’sisters.” Major label interest followed, but the band rebuffed all offers. It was only after the success of their debut album, Pearl Mystic, in 2013, that they finally relented, signing a deal with the major independent label Domino Records. Other than that, they have remained true to their original vision, maintaining complete control over every aspect of their work, right down to the artwork. Amazingly, Hookworms remain a hobby band whose members have to fit in gigs around the demands of day jobs as well as other musical projects. Listening to the extraordinary Microshift, I wonder whether that might now change forever.
“Ullswater” is the third song on the album and it focuses on MJ’s relationship with his father as he succumbed to the debilitating and heartbreaking effects
One day you’ll forget that
I’ll always love you
It’s still the last thing I’ll say
I know it’s the last thing I’ll do
Like all of the songs on the new album, “Ullswater” is built on a musical loop, in this case a programmed synth bassline that repeats in an unorthodox 9/8 time signature. “It’s 9/8 but I think it was programmed as a bar of four and a bar of five,” MJ explained to me. “And then the chorus is in four. It took us a little while to work out because the actual chorus itself is 15 rounds of four and then one round of three to get back into the start of the nine.” After our chat I had to do some mental arithmetic to figure out what he was talking about but the main point is, as MJ put it, “It was a bit of a headfuck at the time – but it works.” Hookworms drummer JN has to get principal credit for making this complicated construction work. A huge fan of Kraftwerk, his brilliant drumming turned this algebraic rhythm pattern into something as straightforward as ’70s disco.
One of the most striking changes to Hookworms’ sound is in the prominence and quality of MJ’s vocals, which were often buried under a mountain of echo effects, making the lyrics indecipherable. “Yeah, that was really conscious,” he told me. “I worked really hard on the lyrics this time and I wanted to push my vocals forward in the mix, whereas before it was always more of an instrument.” The lightness of touch exhibited by the whole band on simple, heartfelt songs such as “The Soft Season” and “Each Time We Pass” would have been simply unimaginable on earlier Hookworms recordings. “The Soft Season” dissects MJ’s break-up with his girlfriend, which occurred in the middle of the three years Hookworms spent creating Microshift. Although it’s clear the singer’s wounds are still healing, his lyrics display no rancour or bitterness, just a painful acceptance. With remarkable candour, the song depicts the humiliation of feeling desire for someone who no longer desires you in return.
MJ has said his lyrics are influenced by Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis, and on this album he cites the plain-spoken poetry of Emily Berry, Frank O’Hara and Ocean Vuong as influences. In “The Soft Season”, I can even detect a direct reference to the third line of Emily Berry’s poem “The End”, in which Berry describes, “My scared ghost peeling off me”.
The gorgeous “Each Time We Pass” is another song that deals with the death of a relationship and it is performed as a duet with Alice Merida Richards, from Virginia Wing, who also co-wrote the words and melody. Two other guest musicians on Microshift receive writing credits, and their presence is another departure from Hookworms’ standard operating procedure. Saxophonist Christopher Duffin performs on three songs and is listed as a co-writer of “Boxing Day”, while legendary artist/producer Richard Formby is credited for his contribution to the epic “Opener”, which is the fifth track in the running order and, coincidentally, opens side two of the vinyl.
“Opener” came out of a two-hour studio jam between the musicians at MJ’s Suburban Home studio, which also serves as the base for all Hookworms rehearsals and recording. The lyrics discuss the often-taboo subject of mental health and, as MJ told me, “toxic masculinity, and finding ways for men to talk to each other and help each other out”. He expanded on this further: “When you have mental health problems you’re always going to have them. You can’t make it go away. It’s more like you’ve got to learn to manage what it is.”
“Boxing Day” was inspired by the destruction of MJ’s treasured Suburban Home when the River Aire burst its banks and flooded the city of Leeds two years ago. It took six months for the studio to be rebuilt and for the band to be able to work on any new music. Though they still haven’t recovered financially, the disaster gave them time to reflect on where they wanted to take their music, and this album is the glorious result. On Microshift, “Boxing Day” provides a brief, noisy interlude towards the end of the album, drawing a solid line under all the negativity and painful experiences preceding it. The song clears the decks for a euphoric finish and some much-needed resolution.
That resolution comes in spades as the stupendous closing track, “Shortcomings”, reaches its climax. The same triumphant chords that concluded “Negative Space” reappear, but this time there is no darkness to undercut the music. MJ’s lyrics contain a powerful message of hope coupled with pragmatism. We can learn to cope, despite the hand we’ve been dealt.
Hold out it will come
I get it you’re feeling helpless
Hold out it will come
Can’t promise it’s almost over
Hold out it will come
I’m sorry it’s always been there
Among the most traumatic events anyone can undergo are the death of a loved one, divorce and moving house. MJ experienced each during the making of Microshift, as well as grappling with the demon of depression. Out of that struggle and pain, Hookworms have made a transcendent album, turning personal tragedies into artistic triumph.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "Gut feelings".
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