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There are a lot of immediate reference points for Halls’ sound, most notably Burial’s seminal 2007 release Untrue, a record which ushered in a strong wave of two-step London electronics more suited to the night bus than the night club. But with Samuel 'Halls' Howard’s inclusion of mumbled vocal lines across his skittering beats, a more recent obvious touch stone comes in the form of James Blake, although with weighty acoustic piano below the heartbroken sentiments, artists like Perfume Genius enter the fray as an obvious comparison point too. And as boring as it is to open a review playing spot the influence, the echoes of these artists resonate across every bar of Ark in an arrestingly familiar way, to an extent which is impossible not to comment on.
What sets Halls apart from his contemporaries, however, as well as what saves him from flat out accusations of needless re-tread, is his willingness to double down on the reverence on any of those artists, while simultaneously bringing synthesised electronics into startling contrast with organic, churchly acoustics in a wholly original way.
The finest example of this, and by far the strongest track on Ark is early single ‘White Chalk’ which manages to take the broken, fragile vocal lines and heavy piano chords of Mike Hadraes, marries them to the claustrophobic, self-doubting electronic rhythmic bedrock of Blake, and then takes the results to yet more deeply affecting realms through the stiff introduction of an eerily strident and stately choir. The track moves between the poles of its components with grace – one moment extenuating its weeping vocal line with cracked falsetto, the next developing its nervous beats; one moment peeling back to permit the full force of the godly chorus, the next (and most excitingly) bringing a range of these competing identities together into a perfectly melding synthesis. The seemingly unlikely trick works perhaps because, while the naturalistic choral swell and the industrial rhythm tracks couldn’t be more oppositional in strictly aural terms, they both speak vividly to the same emotional resonances of coldness, bleakness and despair.
Sadly, ‘White Chalk’ sets the bar high in terms of both emotional engagement and musical achievement, and the rest of Ark spends its running time refusing to stray far from this blueprint, while also failing to attain anything approaching similar heights.
The sharp contrast of influences and sounds which interacted so well across a single track in ‘White Chalk’ are divided and segregated into single tracks over the rest of the album, meaning the contrast plays far less excitingly between juxtaposed songs, rather than being embedded into the fabric of composition.
Delicate piano tinkering is saved for ‘Arc’, for example, clearly being intended to play off against the shattering opening beats of ‘Funeral’, a rhythmic framework which is content to run almost undisturbed for the track’s full five minutes. And as Howard’s melodies become less memorable, more shapeless, and bleed into each other in an unwelcome way, Ark becomes less and less impressive as it progresses, culminating in a high-reaching instrumental climaxing in an intense explosion of live drums vying for a catharsis it hasn’t earned. When Howard pushes himself as a producer and instrumentalist most fully, he reaches territory which isn’t just admirably original, but emotionally engrossing. But sadly, for a great deal of Ark, he’s all too willing to snatch and grab from obvious influences, and play half-baked songwriter to his own indulgence, and ultimately his own detriment.
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