Music Reviews

Hookworms Microshift

(Domino) Rating - 9/10

Hookworms, a West Yorkshire quintet with a name I wouldn’t advise looking up on Google Images, is an independent band in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Three albums in, the band still handles its own management and finances, records at singer Matthew ‘MJ’ Johnson’s own studio, and even designs its own artwork in-house. Despite a degree of early success, the members continue to work a variety of day jobs, which no doubt helps them to retain a sense of perspective, freedom and sanity, even if it does limit touring options.

Critically, the true independent pioneers recognized the necessity of taking risks. There’s not a lot of that going on in the indie-rock sphere right now, but at least Hookworms is swimming against the tide of complacency. Microshift represents a huge step forward for a band that could have probably spent the next decade churning out fuzzy psych-rock records to decent acclaim. Three years of bold artistic evolution are crammed into its nine tracks, with synths playing a dominant role and decipherable vocals exploring highly personal subject matters. It’s the kind of major stylistic shift that even the most confident artists likely feel a sense of trepidation about.

Microshift isn’t a pure pop record by any means, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to that realm than Pearl Mystic or The Hum were. It’s undeniably more accessible, and for some that might spell bad news, but if you’re still fretting about ‘credibility’ and ‘authenticity’ in 2018 then you really need to go and get yourself a life.

So let’s applaud Hookworms, because these independent spirits have not only dared to be different, but they have succeeded emphatically. Indeed, Microshift starts as strongly as any record I’ve heard this decade, maintaining its sense of adventure for a good thirty minutes or so before finally fading a little in the final third. Even in its more meandering moments, it’s never less than interesting; its finest moments, on the other hand, are genuinely exhilarating. The opening salvo of Negative Space and Static Resistance overflows with more ideas than many artists conjure up in their whole careers. The former addresses the loss of the band’s friend and live sound engineer, with its melancholic lyrics of longing and loss set over the kind of propulsive disco-infused belter of which James Murphy would be proud.

The standout moment for me, however, is Ullswater. It sounds absolutely nothing like my memories of that stunning lake in Cumbria, close to where I grew up, but that is the joy of music, memories, and places - we all interpret and experience things differently. The jarring time signature lends the track a sense of foreboding, which seems at odds with the natural beauty one immediately associates with Ullswater. But it is the lyrics that steal the show, as MJ delicately explores his father’s dementia. Towards the climax of the song, he delivers a couplet that packs the emotional heft of a thunderous liver shot: “Oh, one day you'll forget that I'll always love you / It’s still the last thing I'll say, I know it's the last thing I’ll do.” For a vocalist who seemed wary about being heard on previous releases, this strikes me as incredibly bold. And it’s quite simply a beautiful tribute.

Microshift clearly demonstrates that Hookworms are operating on a new level. The sonic adventure of old persists, but the palette has broadened significantly and is further bolstered by a newfound courage to share experiences, thoughts and feelings. At this point, Hookworms might just be the best British band in the business. For a band defined by its part-time DIY ethos, this is quite the accomplishment. [Believe the Hype]