Hookworms’ seething energy made them one of the most spirited and enjoyable acts to watch at this year’s Latitude Festival. It was an intense experience seeing the Leeds-based collective apply such savage pressure to their audience with rip-roaring blasts of static discharge, powering through a rampant set at one of the most laid back, family-friendly music events of the summer. Although the group was very much in sync, each member seemed driven by lead vocalist MJ, who was given a wide birth as his passion spilled out over the stage amid crazed shouting and wild fists in the air. He’s a sensationally confident front man, which implies that the heavy use of tape delay and echo employed to distort lyrical content is purely an aesthetic choice, as it ripples throughout the band’s debut full-length, Pearl Mystic. Only that’s not entirely the case, for behind the album’s mesmerizing sound lies an outpouring of deeply personal lyrics, strewn across one of the most well-received British rock albums of the year.
As an extension of the thriving Leeds DIY scene, the ever industrious five-piece juggle day jobs with their Hookworms duties, as well as commitments to other bands. MJ, MB, EG, JW, and SS — who are predominantly known by their initials as an attempt to avoid name searches on Google — each have a number of different projects they are affiliated with, but after scoring a September release for their debut in the US, they may see a shift in priorities by the end of 2013. Pearl Mystic is a supercharged offering that has seen the band most frequently compared to Spacemen 3, though their personal preferences tend to span a lot further, with recent mentions of Pure X, Melody’s Echo Chamber, and Pissed Jeans, to note a mere few. The consequent fusion of styles and a dominant interest in drone, space rock, prog, US hardcore, and psychedelia all curdle together at the blistering core of this album, which basks in a technical style that douses every shameless dose of genre #namedrop in a meticulous sheen.
Unlimited access to the Suburban Home studio in Leeds meant the band had a relatively fret-free recording schedule. MJ runs the place and takes charge of most, if not all, of the post-production. As well as being a remarkable vocalist, he is a dab hand at the controls, crafting distinctly tight after effects, which drape Hookworms’ sound in a blanket of reverb and echo. It’s a feature that remains the most talked about, how every aural gesture comes shrouded in thick aquatic textures and drawn-out frequencies, even while balancing the steady bass buildup of “Preservation” alongside the garage organ clamor from “Form & Function” — not to mention the sublime, numeric interludes that make up just under a fifth of the record’s length.
But those interludes hardly constitute moments of calm in between the riotous shrieks that might be expected after seeing Hookworms live. “ii” is the most aggressive, as string resonances become pronounced behind a faint echo of a distant vocal loop with faraway keys that spin and spiral into nothingness. The track creates a feeling of tension as modulator pulses emerge halfway through, making it perhaps the most adventurous of the trio. “iii” is not so much an interlude as a concluding statement, a cold and crisp hum that simmers off into a quivering fade. It maintains the feel of an extrasolar force, just over the horizon, which is surely the atmospheric factor responsible for giving rise to all those Spacemen 3 comparisons. But unlike the drug-infused escapism of Sonic Boom and co., this transcendental grip operates as sonic gateways to a variety of styles. “i” is all drone-fuzz fading in and out of itself, as a hurl of static consumes its own source — the effect is captivating without a doubt, but it’s central purpose here is to gradually pave an entrance for the beautiful bass-driven plod of “In Our Time.” It’s the most meditative and abundantly emotive song on the album, and it’s also the only instance when the musicians really offer a connect; it’s like the aesthetic is diluted, igniting a moment of change when the sound is reigned in firm and close.
In a brilliant interview with The Skinny, MJ discussed the sensitive nature of his songwriting, emphasizing that this is his initial attempt at approaching such content in the first person. He describes the process as cathartic, and that his thoughts are easier to project when they come drenched in echoic waves, making them difficult to decipher. In addition, the lyrics don’t appear to have been officially released anywhere online, which shrouds them in an added mystery — there’s something about the repercussions of a badly planned suicide and a broken relationship on the Gringo Records site, but not much else. Pearl Mystic isn’t a vehicle MJ has used for penning a track to share his deepest feelings; it’s a means for channeling personal issues through a medium he seemingly enjoys.
The singer’s relief, therefore, comes through being able to present intimate subjects publicly, without actually having to explicitly divulge the details. From a listener’s perspective, his vocals operate as an instrument, as an ingredient within the music you can only make out from time to time; blasts of “Come On,” “Loosing Your Face,” and “Everything’s All Right” are intertwined with soft commands like “Say Goodnight,” all of which offer very little poetic insight because of how adjoining words are swallowed in the rhythm that drives them. This isn’t wholly negative, but it seems a pity to only pick out the vague phrases above, especially when there is so much at stake in the presence of everything that surrounds.
As Hookworms gain more confidence and their heady rhythms are spread further afield, hopes remain that future material might be slightly less veiled. Sure, it would be a great shame for Hookworms to lose their aesthetic entirely, but there remains a certain balance to be struck. Thankfully, it’s been rumored that a follow-up to Pearl Mystic may already be set in motion, and it would be fantastic to see the band strike again while the iron is still hot. And it is. Piping.