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Grappling Hooks by North Atlantic Oscillation

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Reviewed on 11th March 2010.


Grappling Hooks

By North Atlantic Oscillation

North Atlantic Oscillation are an interesting band, and with 'Grappling Hooks' they have managed to construct an album that sounds exactly like Windows' Media Player's 'Visualisation' setting looks. It's a work of abstract colours and strange shapes, but is it something you'll want to sit and listen to? Possibly not. But, it is something you should listen to, because North Atlantic Oscillation are pushing music in strange new directions.

The journey begins with the haunting lament of 'Marrow,' which strikes a crystal-clear opening note that'll bring a sudden hush to even the noisiest of rooms. Like every North Atlantic Oscillation song, the blurred, echoing edges turn every glistening synth into a galaxy of stars, and frontman Sam Healy's voice, drenched through in echoes, really does have to be heard to be believed.

'Hollywood Has Ended' and album-closer 'Ritual' follow in the same vein. The former, opens on another hush-inducing note, as soft, vocal waves studded with starburst acoustic strumming wash over the listener, before North Atlantic Oscillation pick up the pace with an electro crunch and the distant mutter of downtuned guitars. The whole thing moves fluidly into a heady whirl of whistling electro, backed by a crash and clatter of guitars. North Atlantic Oscillation have an artist's eye for symmetry; 'Hollywood Has Ended' sheds all the musical layers it has gathered during the course of the song and Healy whispers the final lines over the sound of a single synth swirling into the distance. The sense of depth is tangible. One for those with a penchant for artists who push the boundaries of what is possible with sound.

Meanwhile, 'Ritual' sees 'Grappling Hooks' come to an end on its airiest note. It opens with a haze of voices, all whispering and lamenting at cross-purposes against a lullaby backdrop. There is a sense that 'Ritual' is building towards a crescendo, but North Atlantic Oscillation then invert this sense of expectation, by dropping everything except a single, sublime vocal line. But, this is an album-closer, and North Atlantic Oscillation duly bring in the guitars for the obligatory album-closing blowout. Accentuated by a measured knock of piano keys, the closing moments are a tumbling kaleidoscope of sounds that ends, brilliantly, with the screech of a slipping disc. It's the perfect fullstop to this engrossing album: a violent ripping away of sound and a sharp return to a world that seems less colourful than it did before.

'Some Blue Hive' takes a completely different approach to Healy's voice. Instead of letting it echo into the song's far corners, North Atlantic Oscillation bury the vocals beneath a crackle of static, giving this song a subtle, grunge slant. A little bass here and there plays perfectly into this sleazier sound. Of course, for North Atlantic Oscillation the expansive is never far away and 'Some Blue Hive' frequently launches into a celestial swirl that'll have you wondering how this song manages to fit through your speakers. And, just when you think things couldn't get any better, North Atlantic Oscillation serve up a grandiose, effortlessly executed art-rock finale. 'Some Blue Hive' is a feast for the ears from start to finish.

Both songs off the band's 'Call Signs' EP are present and accounted for. 'Cell Count' is exactly the same one-two crunch topped off with effervescent vocals, that you fell in love with in 2009. 'Ceiling Poem' is playfully puttering electro decked out in plenty of glitz, where Healy's vocals are just another layer in the track's jewellery-box of pretty sounds. And, if '77 Hours' sounds familiar, it's because it made an appearance in a remixed form on the 'Call Signs' EP. Far, far superior in its original form, '77 Hours' contrasts a snappy backing beat against flat, SNES-like synths, and then contrasts both of these against Healy's wafting vocals. There's even the occasional touch of grating guitar flung into the mix. The sudden, tinkling keys that whirl throughout the over-long instrumental ending, are the only time this song feels like it's being odd, for the sake of being odd. Hit the 'skip' button and spare yourself that yawn-inducing, trying-too-hard ending, and you'll be amazed at how well North Atlantic Oscillation make these disparate set of elements work.

'Star Chamber,' is the highlight of North Atlantic Oscillation's debut full length, and a must-hear. The 'ping-pong' synth that bats to and fro across 'Star Chamber's buzzy guitar lines is ingeniously and unexpectedly hooky. And, as if one great hook wasn't enough, 'Star Chamber' serves up a short, sharp blast of choir-like sound effects that'll shiver your spine like a rush of ice-cold water. 'Star Chamber' is art-rock that packs as many hooks as your average pop song.

Immediacy and accessibility aren't buzz words for North Atlantic Oscillation, but 'Grappling Hooks' does ship with a few songs you can hum along to. 'Audioplastic,' 'Alexanderplatz' and recent single 'Drawling Maps From Memory' are North Atlantic Oscillation with a tune to tap your feet to.

'Audioplastic' and 'Drawing Maps From Memory' are both ramshackle songs. 'Audioplastic' mixes knocking drums and jabbing keys in a bone-rattling combo that frequently melts into swirls of "whoa-oh" vocals. Stealthily catchy. Similarly, 'Drawing Maps From Memory' takes a jittery beat, and factors in stabbing piano and spring-heeled drums to create a genuine teeth-rattler of a song.

And, the unlikely combinations continue, with 'Alexanderplatz.' Expect a funky base in the vein of 'Audioplastic' and 'Drawing Maps From Memory,' but edged in flat, organ-like synths, and wreathed in ghostly vocals that are so luxuriously layered and echoing, they'll squeeze through your speakers and fill the four corners of the room. Nit-pickers could point out that those organ-inspired synths are a little too harsh and repetitive, and consequently prevent you from sinking properly into 'Alexanderplatz's fug, but apart from that minor production problem, 'Alexanderplatz' is a completely seamless meeting of disparate musical elements.

North Atlantic Oscillation won't find an easy fanbase with this bemusing brand of ambient-music-meets-prog. The band approach each song with an artist's eye for unusual effects and a passion for delivering a three dimensional listening experience you can truly immerse yourself in. It is lacking in hooks, and it is frequently vague and artsy for the sake of it, but the talent and outside-of-the-box thinking will have you convinced that North Atlantic Oscillation have the ability to produce something truly spectacular in the future. An easier album to appreciate than to like, 'Grappling Hooks' is nevertheless a listening experience quite unlike any other and for that, at least, it deserves to be heard.



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