As many as 11% of people can hear The Hum. Having been reported in parts of the UK and USA as far back as the 1940’s, the phenomena of these invasive low-frequency drones - responsible for insanity and, in extreme cases, even suicide - has many theories ranging from mechanical instruments to the clash of ocean waves but nevertheless remains that rarest of things in a 21st century that refuses to leave question marks hanging: an unexplainable anomaly.
Hookworms’ reputation, like The Hum itself, lies in the drone and the uncontrollable constants of their music that remain even after they’ve shattered its thick atmosphere with sharp punches of proto-punk-inspired malevolence. Flinging themselves into the public’s consciousness with 2013’s Pearl Mystic, released by Gringo Records and subsequently reissued worldwide by Weird World, the debut LP’s perfect storm of billowing textures and napalm-filled Modern Lovers licks was one of the most-acclaimed albums of 2013 – receiving plaudits from The Guardian, the BBC, NME, Drowned in Sound (where it was their Album of the Year) and many others.
Eighteen months on, The Hum in some way deals with the fallout from that period, where a bunch of friends merged together in Leeds through a shared love of Nuggets-era garage rock and Washington DC hardcore, found themselves dragged from vocalist, keyboard player and producer MJ’s Suburban Home Studios and into the glaring light. A sell-out UK headline tour in April 2013; festival slots at Latitude, Beacons and Liverpool Psych Fest; a rapturously-received CMJ appearance in New York; support slots with personal heroes Loop and Slowdive and an appearance at the last ever ATP holiday camp. For a group who still keep the process of being a band so self-contained – still managing themselves, preferring to go by their initials in public, and continuing to work day jobs to allow music to remain a passion and an escape – the sudden interest was a challenge as much it was a pleasure.
“We were writing Pearl Mystic to an audience in the same way your diary has an audience,” says guitarist, SS. “It’s written to one but if no one ever reads it that’s not a big deal. But after that, we knew we had a really clear audience for this record. So The Hum is really about different freedoms and constraint. The possibilities with our first LP were vast with what we could make, but with this one there was a much clearer idea about what the record was going to be like - but that’s freeing because you don’t have to worry about its direction as much.”
On paper the record is the flipside of the same coin – nine tracks again, including three more intersections titled ‘iv,’ ‘v’ and ‘vi’; titles are kept short while the author Raymond Carver gains another reference on ‘Beginners’. “We were thinking of starting with a loud scream, to really draw a line in the sand,” reflects SS, “but at the same time we think of The Hum and Pearl Mystic as two parts of the same act.”
If The Hum is a reaction, then its consequence is an album that reaches towards another plain. Hookworms have forged their personality now; as MJ says “it’s like that bit on Fugazi’s Instrument documentary where Brendan Canty says that a jam they’ve got sounds ‘good, but not Fugazi’ – we sound more like Hookworms rather than anyone else on this record.” Within that though they’ve pushed themselves into new territories; the fat’s been trimmed, the delay pedals dialled down and reverb stripped back, allowing bold pop melodies and hooks to burst forth in their place.
Opener ‘The Impasse’ is the closest Hookworms have sounded to their punk roots, a two-and-a-half minute-long garage rock explosion that sees MJ’s vocals pushed to distortion and the density of the surrounding sound almost asphyxiating. Recorded with the idea of sounding “like Suicide if they had a full band” it intentionally juxtaposes the near nine-minute opener of their previous record and sets the stall out for an album that hurtles through with barely a glance backwards. The release and repetition of their previous material remains – most notably on the call and response vocals and sniping guitars of the portentous ‘On Leaving’ – but this is a record that goes for the jugular, aiming to attack the torso as opposed the cerebrum. Those who heard scorched garage rock nugget ‘Radio Tokyo’ last year, will recognise it here again, sounding like a long-lost emission from late 60’s Detroit. First conceived around the making of their first record, the addictive nature of its high-energy bar room dirge ultimately became the starting point for The Hum. “We got so excited playing that track live,” recalls bassist MB. “It made people move and that was something we wanted more of. Going to see acts like Factory Floor and watching how people react to them was really inspiring. It made us want to do something more beat-driven.”
Helping them realise their ambitions in mid-2012 was a post-Pearl Mystic-recording change in personnel that saw JN join the group on drums. A stalwart of the Leeds DIY music scene, the unremitting nature of his no-holds-barred playing kicks The Hum up and down until it’s bruised crimson, punching holes through the pooling textural layers at a ceaseless tempo – with producer MJ putting them it at the front of the mix. “Rhythmically I come from punk rock and I think that’s come across in the record,” says JN, who joined Hookworms after several of the band regularly turned up to shows featuring his other bands - before getting to know MJ when recording with him. “It was a bit like they were keeping tabs on me” he jokes. “But we share a lot of the same values; and I’d become a big fan of them anyway – their first EP was mind-blowing - but even from then it’s been incredible to see them grow in confidence and trust in the songs more and more.”
The collision of JN with the existing members of the group reaches its apex on album centre-piece ‘Beginners’. The song opens the second side of the record and builds around a scuttling series of electronic transmissions, the brutal simplicity of the percussion almost goading the track into opening up – which it does, with a torrent of guttural guitar swirling around like blown apart detritus, vocals inflected with a tangential sense of gospel singers calm amidst the storm; while all the while the beat drives on and on and on.
Thematically The Hum is a record that feels as though it’s come out of the other side of the dark psychological conflicts of Pearl Mystic. MJ is more reticent on the songs’ content this time round, though admits “there are some dark moments still. ‘On Leaving’ is about the loss of a friend; ‘Off Screen’ is probably the most depressing song on the record – it’s intended to stand apart from the rest of the album.” ‘Off Screen’ is the sole break in pace among 35 blistering minutes, drawing influence from the band’s love of Texan dream-poppers Pure X, tidal in the way it rolls over on itself through more than seven emotively fragile minutes. Its stark isolation compared to the rest of the record conversely makes it one of its strongest tracks.
Yet this is a pop record at heart, made emphatically explicit by the ebullient finale of ‘Retreat’ – as MB puts it “a big ‘Yeah!’ moment.” Infectious from the off, it only itches further as it builds before exploding in delirium, MJ’s calls of “you got me thinking about the impasse in the wind” neatly sending the album full circle. Hookworms, however, are only heading forwards.
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