15 October 2012
‘Ark’ heralds the debut album from Halls – the solo moniker of the preciously talented 21 year old South London native Sam Howard. For newcomers Halls inhabits the ever evasive, genre avoiding no-man’s land between glitchy Warp indebted electronica, dubstep and intelligent post-Radiohead indie.
Equally informed by the nomadic urban broodings of Burial as by the crystallized soulfulness of James Blake, Halls paints large sonic vistas with the minimum of constituent parts. But what perhaps comes as most surprising is how overtly indebted his musical lexicon is to the church. There is certainly a touch of the sonically curious and errant choir boy to Howard’s evocative falsetto. Not that this should really be that surprising; I can’t speak for his personal circumstance but for anyone with an ecclesiastical background the presence of music in liturgical worship cannot be undermined or denied and this influence, consciously or subconsciously, is important from a highly impressionable young age. However, it seems to be quite a self-aware decision on behalf of Halls, as indicated by the titles of closing pairing of ‘Holy Communion’ and ‘Winter Prayer’. If one were being particularly hackneyed and trite you may say his sound comes from a place similar to if Sigur Ros and Thom Yorkeperformed Catholic mass.
Instrumental track ‘I’ opens the album with a blend of found sounds and sustained church organ chords, it’s all very cinematic and acts as an apt segway into ‘White Chalk’, a brittle piano ballard that serves as a suitable anchor for Howard’s plaintive vocals as echoey beats jostle for attention with chorale melodies underneath. ‘I’m Not There’ ebbs and flows gently with restrained washes of guitar feedback propulsed by Atoms for Peace-esque skittering bit-crunched beats.
On ‘Roses for the Dead’ Howard sounds equal parts confessional and mournful as he sings “we were pale statues round the bed, our bodies soaked in the bitter light”. Certainly his predilection for lugubrious lyricism could rival Ian Curtis, but the austere nature of his delivery never comes across as anything short of heartfelt. This sobered sincerity is exemplified in the titular piano led instrumental ‘Ark’, which feels so gossamer and fragile that the merest breath could tear it apart. The companion piece ‘Arc’ features a chorus of angelic vocals reverberating around each other as if sung from the cloisters of a medieval Cathedral.
Album highlight ‘Reverie’ has a chorus highly reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘There There’ as a loping bass line provides a sturdy scaffold on which Howard hangs the more subtle musical colours in his spectrum. ‘Holy Communion’ builds with a mournful piano line married to twitchy electronics before glacial waves of reverb and frantic drumming close with dramatic dynamism. Final track ‘Winter Prayer’ is centred on a doleful toy box melody shot through with shards electronic light; it sounds like Aphex Twin at his most reflective.
For an album so earnest and so entrenched in the concept of death ‘Ark’ could have been a bitter pill to swallow. However it’s so expertly crafted and delivered with such grandiose conviction that one cannot but be in awe of the ethereal otherworldly panoramas it portrays.
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