This certainly is compelling… but why is it so compelling?
Ever since 2009 and their ‘Callsigns’ EP, North Atlantic Oscillation have been ploughing up a reputation as the new thing in rock, the sound of the future. Here, it seems that what they offer isn’t all that new, once you capture and dissect it. That engulfing hedge of pins-and-needles guitar noise – great writhing blocks of it surrounding and overwhelming the vocal, like windings of toxic insect-ridden gauze – harks back to the psychedelic revival of the late ’80s and the shoegazing bands who sprang up out of a plain of distortion, disorientation and nauseous bliss. That rambunctious bang of snare drum and tom (pimp-rolling forcefully through the music like a garbage man turned one-man-marching band) is ultimately drawn from Bonham and ‘Kashmir’. Sam Healy’s voice, pale and waving above the monstrous swell of sound from his guitars, always on the verge of drowning in it… again, that’s psychedelia returning on a comet-swing, tied to Syd Barrett on Astronomy Domine, Kevin Shields on You Made Me Realise, or Wayne Coyne on most things.
For all that, Savage With Barometer is pretty marvellous. It’s certainly full-bodied: the attention to detail from Healy and cohorts’ is streets ahead of most of their predecessors and contemporaries. It’s got a pell-mell momentum, albeit via an inexorable slow motion rather than a tremendous rush. But why does it sound new, and how does it carry that shock of emergence along with it?
I think there are two answers here. One is a matter of architecture. Beyond those towering gnarls of scratch-and-howl, the melody that’s clasped by the all-but-buried vocals refuses to be reduced to a simple narcotic mumble. Instead it’s flat-out aspirational. It builds up and out and up again: a precarious scaffolding of pitches, clinging to a hope of reaching somewhere above the roar. Even when it dips or lowers, this is merely a kind of dogged feint – a way around an obstacle. A few people have cut out similar pathways and hauled us along it with them (Brian Wilson and Tim Smith, to name but two) but North Atlantic Oscillation bring their own spooked wonder and weight.
The second answer is to do with ritual, and with belief. Healy has gone on record as saying that his band is, in effect, less post-rock than post-faith. They create music for a world in which established religion has fallen away, leaving a yawning vacuum. Into this, a confusion of signals and noise roars in a torrent, and new rituals form.
Savage With Barometer is, in fact, a trucker’s anthem. Yes, you read that right. It’s also a bitter psalm, a work-song… a portrait of how thinking can be formed by tasks. Take away the plastic Jesus on the dashboard. Substitute a dread which is now invested in the readings of forecasts, and of gauges, and on the turn of storms both physical and fiscal. Now imagine a loose squadron of men caught up in it together, and listen to those high wind-blown words again. “I want fair weather, so I will pray to Mercury / Alone and in lockstep… / We need cargo, / we need news from wretched outposts. / Show us, we can’t see.”
You can rise up and kill your first god – maybe someone else will kill him for you, whether you want them to or not. You’re actually no freer in the brave new material world into which you emerge. You’re still at the mercy of forces beyond your power to wrestle with; still walking under somebody’s bloated shadow, begging them to grant you some kind of harvest, or to provide those answers you need in order to shape and save your fumbling life. For a trucker, orders and benedictions come over the airwaves from the depot. Supply-and-demand carves necessary shapes onto their wanderings. A brief tick or plummet on a financial graph can spark a schism, spilling lives and plans and blasted hopes in its wake.
In turn, a working man’s grumble – speed-addled and resentful, stupefied by an imposed servitude – turns into a plaint, a prayer and a resentful surrender. “I want fair weather, I want white pills. / One-state anthill / – the great operation brings us all under your thumb.” Compressed by work, by the noise of labour piling up, it becomes a new and bitter creed. Perhaps what we’re talking about here isn’t the shock of the new, but of the exposed. Emerging from beneath the bellies of the old gods, we find the new vistas surprisingly familiar, if not worse. Fooled again?
North Atlantic Oscillation: ‘Savage With Barometer’
K-Scope/Bandcamp (no cat. number or barcode)
Download-only promo single
released 15 February 2012
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