A review of North Atlantic Oscillation, Grind Show (Kscope, 2018).
Ok, I’m in the confessional. Bless me, Sam Healy, for I have sinned. Well, sort of. When North Atlantic Oscillation came out with their first album, Grappling Hooks, I was stunned. Just stunned. I had it within days of its initial release, back in late 2009, and it seemed (and still seems) to be the perfect mixture of prog and pop. Truly art rock in the best sense of the term, following in the line (of tradition, not sound) of the Beach Boys, XTC, Kate Bush, and Tears for Fears. It opened my own mind and soul to a million possibilities in music and art, and it also introduced me to the label, Kscope. Kscope, I’d assumed, was the British prog equivalent of Pixar in the United States—a techno fun house of intense creativity and unending paths into realms unknown.
When NAO released Fog Electricin 2012, the band’s second album, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I liked it very much, but, for some reason, it didn’t resonate immediately with me. It was clearly intelligent (to the point of just being downright cerebral), but it seemed a bit cold to me. Then—and I remember it as a glorious moment—I tried it again, roughly a year after its initial release. Something grabbed me profoundly just as the album hit the 13-minute mark in the middle of track 4, “Empire Waste,” and the entire album just clicked for me. In prog rock, typically, one expects the song breaks to mean something, the start of one idea and the end of another. Not with NAO. The great breaks come in the middle of songs, not at the beginning or the end. I didn’t catch that until my listen of Fog Electric, a year after its release. To this day, a half decade ago, I regard it as one of the finest albums I’ve ever heard. If pushed, it would certainly be in my top 25 all-time favorites.
The exact same thing happened with the band’s 2014 album, The Third Day. I listened and listened, and it didn’t quite hit me. Then, one day it did, and joy burst forth in my often muddled brain and soul. This was the real thing. Real art made by real artists.
For whatever reason, Healy’s solo albums—under the name, SAND—have resonated with me from the opening moments of each to the closing of each. No time lag exists for those albums, at least in my brain and soul. They’re just as intelligent and artful as the NAO ones, so I’m not quite sure why the difference.
So, here I am with a review copy of album no. 4, Grind Show. I’ve had it for about two weeks, and I’ve been listening to it, over and over. I’m thoroughly taken with it. It is beautifully captivating. Today, I think I finally (and happily) got the whole of it.
That blasted Sam Healy, brilliant and creative as he is, is always about five steps ahead of me.
Grind Show begins with a wonderful, poignant, and percussive electronica, “Low Earth Orbit,” a real attention grabber. Given this is NAO, it’s not surprising that the follow-up track, “Weedkiller,” is gently melodic and progressive in its build up, musically. I don’t have the lyrics with me yet, but it sounds like this song might be about destroying the corruption in the Church.
Track three, “Fruitful Little Moons,” is so utterly complicated and tribal (in the best sense) that I can’t help but smile. This is a new one—sound and rhythm—for Healy and NAO. A very experimental song with Healy’s lyrics gliding above the beats and into an atmosphere all its own, until breaking into a digestible wall of sound pop song at about the half-way point. The song possesses a bit of a Radiohead feel, but, of course, it is ten times better and more innovative than anything Radiohead did.
“Needles” finds the band in a much more gentle mode, with Healy hovering somewhere above a lazy dream state, his mind floating peacefully along the horizon, until a distorted guitar emerges about 2/3 into the song, adding a bit of chaos to an otherwise carefree day.
“Spinning Top” begins with some electronic distortion before moving immediately into a quiet yet persistent haze of music, interspersed with what I can only call carnival snippets.
The sixth song of the album, “Sirens,” opens with backwards masking before settling into a surprisingly heavy song, especially heavy by NAO standards. Healy’s voice, of course, tempers the heaviness of the music, with its sweet poppish tones. “Sirens” becomes something entirely different by the half-way point, sounding more experimental than ever, with swirling, unidentifiable sounds, before becoming, yet again, a third thing. It really can’t get much more artful than this. “Sirens” is my favorite song of the album, but mostly because it’s just so weird and so stunning in its composition. It holds together perfectly when it really shouldn’t be able to.
“Hymn” is a mystery to me. Clearly, the lyrics mean everything, but I can’t make them out. The song has a creepy, horror feel to it, with a tinny keyboard sound. The delicate sweetness of Healy’s voice only makes this song more terrifying. Stephen King would be proud (and, so am I!). The cover of Grind Show is of an Edwardian-era man playing a mobile music machine. He’s straight out of Ray Bradbury’sSomething Wicked This Way Comes, and I assume the cover is taken from this song.
Healy’s voice, by the last third of the song has become almost “spoken word,” with an urgency that is possibly beyond measure. It’s worrisome enough, that I wish I had Healy’s number—so I could call and make sure he’s ok.
“Downriver” calms things down considerably, a sincere and moving piano track with a pleading vocal line, breaking into something rhythmic and anxious about 2/3 through the song.
Sounding a bit like a Big Big Train gone mad, “Sequoia” plays with a jazzy sequence of brass.
The longest song on the album, “Fernweh,” is the penultimate track. Opening with plaintive piano and vocals, it sounds a bit like Mark Hollis playing with Roger Waters and Rick Wright. This strikes me as the most “prog” song on the album, a bit more cinematic than theatric. Building from the minimalist piano and vocals, it becomes a veritable wall of sound, as it perfectly answers the tribal feel of “Fruitful Little Moons,” all the way back toward the beginning of Grind Show. Many of the sounds in the last minute of the song seem to be calling out, hoping that someone, somewhere might answer them and give them dignity in recognition.
The final title of the album, “kcenrebbuR,” looks like it might be a password suggested by Chrome or Safari. At only one minute and 20 seconds, the final track takes us back to “Sirens,” with more backward masking, a fine way to end the album.
Overall, this album is simply astounding. The theatrical ability of this band (not cinematic, as with most prog, but truly theatric) is beyond my comprehension. As I’ve noted for the last nine years, there are few singers who can bring the sweet and yet (when necessary for the story) disturbing quality that Healy can. He’s one of our best singers, though I would guess such a claim would shock him.
And, it’s not just Healy, of course. NAO as a whole provides so many twists, turns, and jags that Grind Showis a beautiful puzzle, yearning to be solved.