Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Album Review: Halls - Ark

Rating: Woof Daddy

London producer/singer Sam Howard, a.k.a. Halls, is likely bored of people comparing to other artists. After floating through his debut Ark, the names that flutter forth include James Blake, Burial, Tim Hecker, Hood, and Talk Talk; all distinct and wondrous acts that could cause the most confident artist in the world to crack under the weight of the pressure of the comparison. To Howard's credit, he seems to understand this pitfall and instead of trying to skirt the comparisons, he chooses to ignore them and adds his distinctive take on more singer-songwriter leaning UK bass music. Ark will always be known for the amazing first single "White Chalk," which pulls its influence directly from James Blake, striking forward on stark piano chords and Howard's wan, plaintive voice, pinged by echoes of electronics and then it all falls silent, the kick drum comes in and the choir of voices. It is a pure moment of beauty that never fails to make the hair on my arm stand on end. "White Chalk" is a stunning track that is one of the most sonically perfect songs you will hear all year.

For most young artists, having such a distinctive and brilliant track such as "White Chalk" makes most of their other tracks pale in comparison. Howard doesn't choose to remake this moment over and over again, and certainly, while no other track quite stands out like it, Ark still showcases an artist that knows what he is doing if still searching out what his sound is. There are several moments on Ark that are still breathtaking in their own right. "Shadow of the Colossus" is a brilliant glitch ridden track that travels through ghostly atmospherics and skittering percussion before erupting into a furious storm of heady percussion.

And the gorgeous triad of early singles that form the haunting center of Ark. "Roses for the Dead" is a delicate hymn; Howard's voice forlorn and searching, buffeted by soft percussion and rising waves of strings and organ.

"Funeral" with its ghostly chimes and insistent two-step programming, broken every so often by organ drones and shards of electronics.

And "Reverie," which trades the electronics for pointillistic strums of acoustic guitar, almost funky bass, and subtle percussion ever building into something stronger. It becomes one of the more traditional tracks on the record, but still holds its own slightly off-kilter fascination.

Interspersed throughout other atmospheric instrumentals, two other key tracks of note are the initially stark "Holy Communion" rising from haunted piano chords and glitchy drum programming into fierce avalanche of droning Tim Hecker-like organs and furious pounding drums, and the fragile ballad "I'm Not There" which brings out all the loneliness and sadness out of Howard's voice.

Yes, the complaints about the record are there, that it holds too close to its influences and that Howard's voice is too weak and one note to carry the whole album. I don't dismiss any of those criticisms and at times they do annoy me, but there is something about the record as a whole that speaks to me. There is so much going on in the background that I find new elements, previously unheard, each time I give the album a listen. His voice, while admittedly weak, gains a solemn power as it goes forward, as if the weight of the world is holding him back. Ark is a tremendous experience for me, that perhaps only speaks to me. So be it. I personally am richer for it.

Rating Scale:

Chilfos: masterpiece; coolest thing I've heard in ages.

Woof Daddy: excellent; just a hair away from being a masterpiece.

Grrrr: very good; will definitely be considered for my top releases of the year.

Yeah Daddy Make Me Want It: good; definitely invites further listens and piques one's interest for more material.

Meh: not horrible, but certainly not great; could have either been polished, trimmed, or re-thought.

Jeez Lady: what the hell happened? Just plain bad. They should hang their heads in shame and be forced to listen to Lady Gaga ad nauseam as penance.

Tragicistani: so bad, armed villagers with pitchforks and torches should run the artist out of the country for inflicting this abomination on the human race.

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