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Hookworms – Microshift

Hookworms are a 5-piece psychedelic rock band from Leeds, England, whose members are only identifiable by their initials, perhaps to let the music speak for itself. They play a noisy and chaotic brand of psychedelia that owes much to the acid rock of the 60s, as well as early drone music, Krautrock and space rock. The band’s first album was released on Sun Araw’s label – an underground lo-fi artist as psychedelic as they come, which gives some idea of what their sound was like. At least, until this album. Microshift is their first album to be a focused, studio-based creation, while previous albums were shaped more by their evidently unhinged and intense live sound. And indeed, the music on Microshift does have a much more refined, polished sound.

Whereas on previous albums, the band looked to altered states of consciousness and outer space for inspiration, this album feels very much grounded in reality, and defined by the difficult emotions and situations that shaped its creation. This is also their first album in which the lyrics feel as though they have added weight and significance, rather than being used as another instrument. The vocals are still partly buried, though not without purpose, as in some ways this conveys a certain emotional distance, a reluctance to face up to these difficult emotions. The guitar is no longer the central part of the songs, though the synthesized organ remains a key element. However, the guitar here acts more to add colour and texture to the bed of synths that dominates the album. The very rhythmic nature of this album at first may not seem the most conducive to the often vulnerable themes of the lyrics, and this plays into the theme of emotional avoidance or denial, as often they can be found between the lines. It is often as though the rhythms are for dancing through the pain, or perhaps dancing to lose oneself to the catharsis.

The album’s opener, “Negative Space”, which was also its lead single, gets the album off to the best possible start – an epic, near 7-minute cut that captures the heart of this album’s emotional thrust. The song feels like the moments after learning of the loss of someone very close. The lyrics are frantic and agonised, like the thoughts and inner monologue racing around one’s head. Ushered in by strange metallic voices that writhe and disorient, the song picks up with nervy dance-punk drums which bring to mind the early-2000s post-punk revival New York sound (i.e. LCD Soundsystem), as the synth-organ swells around it. The song blossoms into a psychedelic synthesized swirl, with guitar colouring in the bed of synths, however, there is a distinct shift just over halfway through. Now the song feels almost jubilant, the catharsis previously hinted at is now in full force. The mantra now is “I still see you every time I’m down,” as the song continues its noisy, swelling build, with a fractured guitar solo adding to the intensity, like all the emotions compounding and pouring out. One can almost imagine someone losing themselves on a dance floor, trying to dance through the pain of the loss. “Negative Space”, to say the least, is a fantastic and powerful opener that wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the album.

“Static Resistance” feels like the album’s token pop single. A more straightforwardly upbeat cut than the opener, it may not be as engaging as the opener, but it doesn’t need to be, and carries the album along just fine. Lyrically, it addresses more universal themes of getting old and trying desperately to make the most of your time, as highlighted by key lines “getting old is such a system; I gotta celebrate,”. The track list is also underscored by two more 7-8 minute epics in “Ullswater” and “Opener”. The former alludes to the lake in the English Lake District, regarded by some as the most beautiful of the English lakes – bringing to mind a longing for escape. The music follows suit – a busy but atmospheric Krautrock-esque song in 9/4 time, evoking cinematic scenes of travel, of open spaces and nature. Lyrically, it is a plea for reassurance – “I wanna know if we’re all like that”. After a noisy swell of an intro, “Opener” opts for a similar widescreen atmosphere of clarity and open spaces, though lyrically it also flirts with denial – “we can’t proceed what we can’t have lost”.

Sandwiched in between the two epics, though, comes one of the album’s mellowest songs in “Soft Season”. Though it continues in a similar vein, with the opening line “It’s been a whole year since we spoke,” it feels very comforting, despite, or perhaps in the face of, the heady melancholy conveyed by the snowy bed of synths. There is still a longing reminiscence in the song, laced with regret, but it feels more knowing and accepting. The song is also almost percussion-less, aside from an odd rattling sound heard at the beginning and the end that sounds like several table tennis matches playing at once, perhaps signifying all of the confused emotions and thoughts bouncing around one’s head. “Each Time We Pass” follows suit, with a gentle psychedelic soundscape that sounds like the dawn of a new beginning, though still with that melancholy hanging in the background. The steady, grinding rhythm is underscored by a squelchy synth swirl that sounds almost like birdsong, only adding to the new dawn feeling. Singer MJ reaches into a falsetto, exposing a self-deprecating vulnerability in seemingly seeking escape or reassurance in another particular individual. He acknowledges that “anyone can read my mind,” signifying he no longer desires to hide or run away from his emotions, but acknowledges that this can only be a temporary respite in saying “don’t wait for me”.

The last leg of the album is ushered in by “Boxing Day”, the shortest and darkest song on the album. This is a song that feels like an emotionless void intended to counteract the outpouring of emotions from before. The vocals are delivered in a dull monotone, offset by chaotic swirls of noise, coupled with malevolent and squawky saxophone. Perhaps tellingly, the song cuts off suddenly, making for a brief glimpse into the lowest moments of the protagonist. “Reunion,” then, is a very pretty ambient instrumental that appears to signify the passing of time, with another wintry synth bed with twinkly keys and the saxophone returning again.

Finally, “Shortcomings” rounds out the album on what at first appears to be a pessimistic note, while also feeling like a deliberate call-back to the opener. Musically, the song might be the most overly dance-punk on the album, opening with a steady muscular beat, and a funky but brooding post-punk bass line. Perhaps at some point in the future, it sees our protagonist in seemingly the same place as before, having apparently learned nothing from the emotional ups and downs, but merely more cynical and worn down by those emotions. Placing him at the end of a party, he throws around phrases like “lately love feels cynical” and “this feels so endless, just wanna plateau”. However, there is a shift in the chorus, a return to the catharsis of the opener, like a bright spark to the darkness. The protagonist realises the importance of company, his fear of loneliness – “I cannot bear to see my phone disconnected”, accepting that sometimes there are no happy endings, but that we have to make do with what we’ve been dealt and make the best of whatever happens, and hope to grow as individuals. There is still a dose of cynicism, but not an unjustified one, a healthy dose. The song closes out with a call and response seemingly between two opposite emotional sides, with lines like “I’m getting to feeling helpless” calmed by the reassuring “Just hold out, it’ll come”. And with a pretty and knowing fade-out, it feels as though some acceptance has been reached at last.

With Microshift, Hookworms have taken the best parts of their previous live approach and incorporated it into their new studio-based approach, with an added emotional maturity that makes these songs resonate on a new level. The lyrics, though not particularly brilliant, convey the turmoil surrounding this album’s creation, while the music underscores these themes with a psychedelic and more synth-based approach. In many ways, this may seem like a transitional album, but it is a successful transition, as they have expanded and changed their sound without sacrificing what made them appealing in the first place. It may only be a Microshift, but it is an important one nonetheless, and one that likely would not have happened had it not been for the traumatic circumstances preceding and surrounding its creation.