“Microshift” marks a brief departure from Hookworms’ noise-based rock in favor of a more electronic style.
Every now and again, you come across an album for which you have absolutely no context, an album you can’t even remember finding. In any case, the album is right there, so you listen to it, and it turns out it’s a fucking great album, an album that’s been rather well-received in the little splash that its made, but an album that remains bathed in obscurity.
Hookworms’s “Microshift” is one of those albums. The English five-piece released their third album February 2, and while it’s a record that will never make its way to the stage at the anyone can recognize as being an effort truly unto its own, an album made for the sake of the music and for nothing else.
I’ve seen Hookworms best described as noise rock, though I’d stress a sprinkling of psychedelia in the description. Their previous records, the 2013 debut “Pearl Mystic” and 2014 sophomore “The Hum,” were grungy buildups of noise and angst, packed with layers upon layers of synth and guitar, taking the avid listener many repetitions to decode. Toned down but by no means turned off, “Microshift” takes their sound in a more electronic direction, featuring more distinct vocals and slightly more radio-friendly singles.
Still, I wouldn’t expect to hear them on any local radio waves. For any strung-out guitar-based noise they’ve left behind, Hookworms has adapted a rawer, at times sparser composition, surrounding electronic beats.
The album’s opener, and what an opener, “Negative Space” is a track built like a post-rock song, a steady upward climb. With each minute, more features get slapped onto the track, until finally in the final minutes we have screaming synths backdropping the vocals. The first few seconds introduce a few electronic elements, a couple of odd noises played almost out of tempo with one another and looped, the basic skeletal structure of the piece.
“Static Resistance,” the album’s second track and second single alike, masquerades as the poppiest, most agreeable piece. Soaring vocals, indistinct guitar, a safe drum beat — all these elements form a powerful piece of what I’d describe as progressive pop. The song carries on powerfully until a sudden shift to a minute of noise, a droning note, a foreboding end to the piece that leads directly into “Ullswater,” a track sharing the skeletal features introduced in “Negative Space.”
Structurally, the two songs are much the same, guitar-driven melodies floating on synthesized cords, backed entirely with a repeated and simple electronic beat. “Ullswater,” however, has a greater payoff in the form of a sort of instrumental breakdown, a brief “jam sesh,” if you will, that ends the track before slipping into “The Soft Season,” the appropriately-named and softest track on the record, featuring only vocals and synth melodies resembling church organs.
The track perhaps most reminiscent of their previous works is “Boxing Day,” which carries itself along with chanting vocals like those of a cult gathering, a driving drum beat, and brief flashes of dissonant brass and synthesized noise that assault the ears, release, then assault again. The noise-heaviest track, it’s regrettably short and ends abruptly.
What is perhaps most striking to me about the album is how it can sound so familiar and so new at the same time. The vocalist’s voice, unmistakably English and always soaring as high as the record’s mixing will allow it, hearkens back to ‘80s bands like Tears for Fears, even when the compositional content couldn’t be more different. This effect is most prevalent on the record’s fifth track, “Opener,” but is an all-encompassing feature of the voice. Pair that with the gratuitous synth work, and you have an album like a noise-infused record plucked from the second British invasion.
Concluding the album, and thus the review, it’s important to note it isn’t exactly a noise rock album. There are elements of the band’s harsh past that flare up in certain moments, very lucid and passionate moments, but Hookworms seems to have mostly kept a muzzle on. Perhaps that’s the wrong metaphor. This doesn’t feel like a studio-constrained attempt at making a more radio-friendly record, but rather like a band shedding its past sound, like a band moving on while simultaneously not forgetting what it once was.
“Microshift” is easy to listen to compared to Hookworms’s past material. I personally prefer their older records, but even so, I find “Microshift” may not be for everyone. It’s a solid record through-and-through, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a zenith for Hookworms. It feels like an experiment, a brief pit stop, an album recorded with the live stage and all its promised improvisation in mind.
“Microshift” is a low-key triumph, an album that doesn’t immediately grab you but one in which you can melt away. What’s important is that it exists and is waiting for a listen. Springboard yourself, dive into the world of noise, dive into Hookworms.