New Zealand band Cut Off Your Hands is one I’ve followed without great enthusiasm. With a bunch of EPs under their belt, their debut album was accompanied by a lot of hype. Possibly not undeserved, either, as it is a very good album which is simply not completely to my taste. It’s the sort of music that could come on the radio, and I’d not change the station, but I’m unlikely to choose to listen to it by choice. And yet there was something there that made me give the subsequent album a chance. But no – though it was more enjoyable than the debut, the sophomore effort still didn’t really push my buttons. Yet here we are in 2020, with Cut Off Your Hands announcing their demise as they release their third album, HLLH. And, bugger me, if they haven’t finally done it. This album is everything I felt the band had in them, but never heard.
All the progressive and post punk hints in their music have been dialled up to eleven, with healthy dollops of funk and dub. I’m reminded of the heady punk funk sounds of Joy Division, Talking Heads, King Crimson, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Gang of Four, and it’s a joy! Throw in some angular art pop from Roxy Music and Aotearoa’s own Split Enz, and Bob’s your uncle. Bookended by some not-quite ambient soundscapes, the album is a completely different beast from the preceding two albums, and yet has enough similarities it’s clearly still the same band. What’s most impressive is despite all those bands I have drawn comparisons with, mostly known for their ’70s and ’80s sounds, Cut Off Your Hands make it sound completely contemporary. HLLH doesn’t come across as a retro homage or nostalgic pastiche, so much as a celebration of what made those sounds special, reimagined for the 2010s.
Having said that, though, I have to admit that Lows does begin the album with a vibe that possibly wouldn’t be too out of place on David Bowie’s Low album. It does show that Cut Off Your Hands probably pay as much attention to Eno when he’s with Bowie, as they do when he’s with Talking Heads. And speaking of Talking Heads, Lows segues straight into Higher Lows, Lower Highs, which has the off-kilter bounce of that band. The groove of the rhythm section is irresistible. The following Hate Somebody (released as a single three years ago!) is possibly the most similar to the sound of the previous two albums, but still towers over all that came before, because of that funky and in your face rhythm. The guitar is less jangly, and more scratchy. Hate Somebody is paradoxically more polished, and rawer – dressed to the nines, ready to take you out and claw off your face.
L4EO is a too short introductory piece to Live For Each Other. Although it has the same beat, it is somewhat deranged and disjointed, and I love that sense of restrained chaos. Given just how well the band plays with this later on in the album, it would have been awesome to have heard an extended L4EO. It may be short, but it’s a real beaut. Live For Each Other on the other hand is a crazily glorious heaping of funk, underscored by some of the most exciting guitar on the album – although it’s largely kept in the background. Subtle incendiary riffs that don’t quite fit with the groove, and yet sound all the better for that.
On the Sea is possibly my least favourite track (it’s just a little too conventional, though that is purely relatively speaking), but the following IMG_030 is one of my favourites. Unfortunately it’s another instrumental intermission that is far too short for my liking. And then we have Blue Smoke Draft – a quite lovely song, which references the classic Kiwi song Blue Smoke. It has a wistful bounce to it that is not quite lugubrious. Blue Smoke Draft really does have the feel of a closing number, and if Cut Off Your Hands were a more conventional band, it probably would be just that.
But they’re not, so instead the album ends with my absolute favourite piece – the discordant dissonant metal machine music of Love Somebody. It’s a track that might make more sense were it to swap titles with Hate Somebody – but where would the fun be in that? Cut Off Your Hands are not going out with a whimper, but a full-bodied, blood-curdling, instrumental scream – and it’s glorious! Almost nine-and-a-half minutes of twisted, tortured noise. There are brief moments of respite, and they are as beautiful as the rest is ugly. And the ugly is beautiful anyway. This is a magnificent finale.
I can’t help but feel it’s a shame that this is Cut Off Your Hands’ swan song. On the other hand, it has made me want to go back and listen again to the previous two albums. It seems crazy to me that I can enjoy this album so much, when I was so uninspired by their previous efforts. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right time and place then, and now I am? Or perhaps this final hurrah of Cut Off Your Hands has simply seen the band raise their game, as I believe they were aware during the longwinded writing and release of the album that it would be the last. They certainly seem to have thrown everything at it, and I’m rather glad they did.
01. Lows (2:03)
02. Higher Lows, Lower Highs (4:59)
03. Hate Somebody (4:45)
04. L4EO (0:53)
05. Live For Each Other (3:50)
06. On the Sea (3:46)
07. IMG_030 (1:58)
08. Blue Smoke Draft (6:05)
09. Love Somebody (9:25)
Total Time – 37:44
Brent Harris – Drums, Vocals
Philip Hadfield – Bass
Nick Johnston – Vocals, Guitar
Elisapeta Heta – Vocals
Soane Tui – Vocals
Jonathan Lee – Guitars
Jeremy Toy – Synths, Keyboards, Percussion
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: New Zealand
Date of Release: 16th October 2020