This, from the official press release: “… a dramatic shift into more accessible territory: pop, electronica, rock & even folk elements …”
I’ve been honoured and able to call Sam Healy my friend for a couple of years. This wasn’t the intention when I calmly suggested his first solo project, Sand, was the best album I’ve heard in the 21st Century. When I finally met this talented man at a low-key North Atlantic Oscillation gig in Birmingham 3½ years ago, I soon learned that we had very similar senses of humour; he had an inventive, playful mind that wasn’t scared to juxtapose an obvious position. Or… he was quite mad.
I mention this, not because I want to be seen as a namedropper, or to shoehorn in the fact I still rate the first Sand album very highly, I mention it because Healy is a bit of a joker and I’m really not sure why the press release is worded that way… You see, I am a North Atlantic Oscillation champion and I believe they should have a far bigger audience than they have. The thing is, NAO to me are pop, rock, folk electronica – that’s pretty much how I ‘sell’ them to people (and probably 50% of the reason those people never follow my advice). So reading a press release that suggests the band are moving into that direction sat uncomfortably with me, because, on initial listens, Grind Show is quite possibly the least accessible of their albums, so far.
North Atlantic Oscillation is now Healy alone. That also bothered me. I was a firm believer that former bassist Chris Howard grounded him and made him aware of real music. Sam once told me that Chris was the guy who introduced him to a lot of his later musical influences; introduced him to the classic rock and prog that I grew up with and hear in NAO’s work. I also believed Ben Martin’s drumming was one of the reasons they had such a unique sound; often described as sounding a bit like The Flaming Lips, I’d call that comparison bullshit, apart from the way Ben smashed his drum kit like there was no tomorrow. Armed with the knowledge that both had left the band to pursue other dreams also filled me with an uncertain dread.
Let’s get this out there: I thought the band would feel a little incomplete without the missing members – yet their influences are there to be heard, even if they were not there in recording. I listen to it and I’d argue with Sam until the coos come hame that Grind Show is actually a departure from more ‘accessible territory’; to me it’s more like a post-modern post-rock album. I still see those similar and familiar influences, but performed now in a more ‘personal’ way. It still has that ‘epic’ feel the last two albums particularly had, yet in many ways it feels as stripped back as Grappling Hooks, but now with the influence of age and experience. This really isn’t a bad thing because the brilliance of individual musicians (or musician) tends to be easier to detect.
My initial impression was it’s more like a follow-up to Sand’s second album A Sleeper, Just Awake, probably down to the more electronic feel and the use of effects to conjure up uncertain atmospherics. However, Healy employs a lot of different vocal styles, testing his range, experimenting with new sounds. He really hits his stride with Sequoia, the ninth track, it’s the first track that truly allows Healy to stretch those brilliant vocals… he has a wonderful voice – like a mix of Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Mark Hollis, Art Garfunkel, Scott Walker and Jimmy Krankie – and this is the first time in the album that he really gets to belt one out. That’s not to say he doesn’t stretch his pipes sooner, it’s just the track that shows you how powerful his voice can be.
You know the expression, ‘It’s a grower’? Well, Grind Show is exactly that. It isn’t accessible; I believe it’s the least immediate album by the ‘band’ so far, but what it lacks in some areas it makes up in others by being wildly inventive, unexpected and quite beautiful. Parts of tracks that I found jarring on initial listens now make so much more sense; there’s a distinct Miles Davis jazziness to the album that makes the sometimes in-yer-face electronic bits fit in with the customary cushioned wall of sound you normally associate the band with.
When you produce music as complex and intense as this, Talk Talk can never be too far from creative comparisons. NAO might currently be just Sam, but he has had a lot of production help from Pete Meighan, the Dublin-based producer who has worked with the band before and was instrumental (literally) on Healy’s solo efforts. Their relationship, to me, resembles the one between Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis and his producer friend Tim Freise-Greene – and look what music those two geniuses went on to create?
In conclusion; I’m in an unenviable position: what if I thought the album really was shit? I have a preview because I’m a fan [who writes great reviews] and a friend; does that put pressure on me to be kind? Would I be? Well, I did really think ‘WTF?’ the first time I heard it, but as stated above, more because it wasn’t what I expected and because I disagreed with the ‘accessible’ claim. Besides, what does a fan truly expect anyhow? I often wonder if aficionados and die-hard fans just want their favourite bands to do their favourite tracks – constantly repackaged or reworked so they don’t have to think about new songs, directions or ideas. I was the same; I approached this album with more dread than anticipation because… What if I didn’t like it?
If anything, in my mind NAO have become more uncategorisable than they were last week. If this album came out under the Radiohead banner there would be priapic rock DJs poking each others’ eyes out trying to be the most enthused about it; but it’s by a little known bloke in Edinburgh (originally from Ireland) who already has a back catalogue with more brilliance and invention than most rock stars can muster in their entire careers; so it’s probably never going to get the recognition it deserves (at least, not yet).
Grind Show is sublime. If The Third Day was velvet, this is felt – smooth but with a rougher edge. It’s full of atmospherics, feeling, diversity and invention. In many ways it’s haunting while being uplifting; happy while reflecting on sadness. And, I will concede it feels more like a rock album, but I don’t quite know why. I hope it’s going to attract many new fans, but if it doesn’t I feel sorry for all those people who don’t get what I do.
The test of a great album is how long it stays on your record player; The Third Day was played just last week (not even in anticipation of this new project); I don’t know if Grind Show will be played in 2022 as much as The Third Day has been since 2014, but at the moment I really hope so.
Also, you can read Phil Hall’s interview with Sam Healy HERE.]
01. Low Earth Orbit (5:22)
02. Weedkiller (5:44)
03. Fruitful Little Moons (4:05)
04. Needles (4:43)
05. Spinning Top (4:00)
06. Sirens (6:36)
07. Hymn (5:47)
08. Downriver (6:56)
09. Sequoia (3:35)
10. Fernweh (7:15)
11. kcenrebbur (1:19)
Total Time – 55:22
Ben Martin – Drums, Synths, Programming
Sam Healy – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Programming
Record Label: Vineland Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 16th November 2018