Sam Healy–while complying with Big Euro Brother laws, regulations, and microintrusions–offered a wonderful teaser/trailer for the forthcoming North Atlantic Oscillation album, coming sometime this year.
Granted, it’s only a full-eighteen seconds worth, but it’s eighteen more seconds then we had before. . .
I must happily admit, every month I really look forward to iTunes informing me that a new Billy Reeves/Kscope Podcast has arrived in my podcast box (“area”? I have no idea what it’s called–something in iTunes). This month’s–no. 56–is especially good.
A review of North Atlantic Oscillation, The Third Day (Kscope; October 2014).
Tracks: Great Plains II; Elsewhere; August; A Nice Little Place; Penrose; Do Something Useful; Wires; Pines of Eden; Dust; and When to Stop.
NAO: Sam Healy (lead vocals, guitar, and keyboards; Ben Martin (drums); and Chris Howard (bass). The Third Day mixed by Sam Healy. Artwork by Ross Macrae and Brendan McCarthy.
What do you do with a problem like Sam Healy? Queue image of an Irishman-turned-Scotsman dancing around a high mountain top. Oh, and did I mention, he’s really, really smart? That is, really, really smart. Or, did I mention this already?
Of the many joys of editing progarchy for the past two years, one of the greatest has been getting to know a whole slew of truly creative, interesting, serious, perfectionist artists. Of those who reside at the very top of the top—at least in this editor’s not so humble opinion—sits Healy, dressed as an Austrian nun or not. His correspondence reveals that Sam always has that twinkle, that spark in his eye and soul. Though, he doesn’t believe in the latter, it’s there in abundance.
When I received a review copy of The Third Day, North Atlantic Oscillation’s latest aural ecstasy, I scratched my head, a little confused. This isn’t the first time I’ve been a bit perplexed by NAO’s music. When I first received a copy of the band’s second album, Fog Electric, I set it aside for a while as I just didn’t understand what it was trying to accomplish. When I picked it up again, months after its release, I realized how brilliant it was. It hit me over the head, truly a Eureka! moment. For some reason, it just took some time and several listens “to get it.” Now that “I get it,” I regard it as one of the finest albums I’ve heard in my almost four decades of listening to rock music.
This wasn’t the case, for whatever reason, when I first listened to NAO’s Grappling Hooks. That first album by the band grabbed me from the opening moments. I found it as enticing as possibly imaginable. What attracted me most to Grappling Hooks was the way in which Healy’s voice matched the music—and the music, Healy’s voice—so perfectly. The vocals sound like some of the best of early rock—the rock of my mom’s generation, the late 1950s—but mixed with the complicated and layered sonic delights made possible only by the most modern production and engineering. And, certainly, the unique quality of Sam’s ear. Well, the two of them.
Of course, there’s always the flow of the music as well. This matters for any band and any album, but none more so than for NAO. The secret to each of the band’s albums is figuring out the flow of the thing. Why did the band place this song next to this song? Or that song next to that song? Sometimes—in fact, quite often—NAO loves throwing in a curve ball, especially when the music pretends to change tracks. When you look at the chronometer, though, you quickly realize what you thought to be a track change was merely (and, by merely, I mean with genius) a shift in time signature or in the mood of a single piece. How often has it happened that I’ve looked down to see what the “new track” is called only to see the track information indicating there is still two or three minutes left of the piece you had thought had already flown by.
As evidence for the deep mystery and flow of each NAO album, simply check out the album cover of the forthcoming The Third Day.
What’s going on here? Pagan, zodiac, Plotinian, and Christian symbols intermixed (intermixing?) on some kind of biotechnology. Layers, of course, but with the infinite loop pointing us toward . . . well, whatever is beyond infinity. Only Buzz Lightyear and William Shatner really know. Under the DaVinci-esque biotech sundial doobob is a flat, Jonathan Ive type computer chip. Add in Hugh Syme-like characters and fonts from the previous two Rush albums, and you might—just maybe—start to understand the convoluted riddle that is a NAO album. I’m getting a bit dizzy just looking at the image.
Steady, Birzer, steady.
Well, I must admit, I was even more perplexed by The Third Day than by Fog Electric. I wanted so badly to like it when the review copy landed in my inbox. After all, I really like NAO and Sam. But, my reaction was somewhat muted. What was going on? It all sounded a bit “samey” to me (I’m having a hard time writing this now, as I’m laughing that it ever sounded “samey”; and, by the way is “samey” even a word?). As with Fog Electric, The Third Day took about a month and a number of listens for me to absorb. Now, though, I think I “get it.” In fact, it’s mind-bogglingly good.
Far from the neoterist “samey” the album is complex, musically as well as lyrically. It is brilliant, stunning, and glowing. While I like the entire album, tracks 6 through 10 are especially good. Far more than on the first two albums, NAO wears its influences a bit more openly on this album and especially with these last five songs. Elements of Radiohead and the Beatles emerge without trepidation. Whereas I thought Anathema almost mimicked Radiohead on their latest release, NAO honors them on The Third Day. If anything, the homage paid to Radiohead and the Beatles only increases my respect for the complete honesty of Healy and co.
Well, I’ve gone on long enough. My summary—buy the album as soon as you possibly can. NAO is, unquestionably, one of the most important and most interesting bands on the current scene. Sam Healy and co. are the future of our beloved genre.
From the opening notes to the final ones, the first solo album by Sam Healy, SAND, is a stunning, immersive ride. Mysteriously, SAND is at once glorious, introspective, resignated, and triumphal.
Throughout SAND, Healy layers tensions. Indeed, tensions lurk and hover every where in and throughout this album. In the end, all find resolution, and this is much of what makes SAND so utterly brilliant and compelling. There are walls of sound, there are depths of sound, and there are tidal waves of sound.
There are also silences, many of which are deafening. Some silences allow the listener to pause, but Healy uses most of his silences to create a playful anxiety. Tellingly, some of the silences within the tracks are longer than those between the tracks.
In the last half century of rock, one might readily compare SAND to Talk Talk, to the Beach Boys, to Mew, to ELO, to Catherine Wheel, and to Pink Floyd. But, without a doubt (and I’ve had the joy of corresponding a bit with Healy), Sam Healy is very much his own man and artist. He’s as dedicated to his music as he is intelligent and witty. Yet another perfectionist.
Defining SAND, (though, there’s nothing about SAND that one could not call “particular” or merely representative) Healy juxtaposes minimalist rhythms with swirling eddies and currents of dense sounds, samples, strings, and always interesting lyrical insights.
I would never want this last part of what I just wrote to be lost, somehow, in this review. Healy possesses the gifts of the poet. Words find their places, rather perfectly. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,”
And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious.
If I have one frustration with the reviewers of the current manifestation of progressive and post-progressive rock (overall, not at any one particular outlet) it’s that too few critics look at the words. Yet, if one looks carefully at the lyrics being produced by Spawton and Longdon, Tillyson, Kilminster, or Healy, she or he will see the poetic insights equivalent to the best of the 19th-century English romantics. (And, of course, I’m not even including the non-Brits. Add the Scandinavians and North Americans in, and we’re experiencing a brilliant moment of poetic revival. But, this isn’t the purpose of this post. . . . For now, trust me that Healy is a master of words, a smith of words, if you will.)
Not only does he master his musical material, but he knows which word to use to emphasize the music, and which music to employ to emphasize the word. Without getting religious here, it would be fair to state that something sacramental or incarnational appears when Healy puts words to notes and notes to words.
My favorite line of SAND:
Suspicious architecture rises on the plains of our doubt.
This is not the only gem. Healy’s words drop mischievously like bombs at times, and always to the delight of the listener.
Without your triage and telegraph
I’m a rudderless antique oil-powered destroyer
While the reason slips away beneath the everyday
White picket fences circumscribe the lies that started out
Innocent as not complaining when you feel slighted
In the material promoting SAND, Healy said that he needed a “palate cleanser” after writing and recording his first two albums as North Atlantic Oscillation (also on Kscope). And, as it turns out, Healy recorded all of this on his own, with only the most minimal help from others. He wrote, produced, mixed, and engineered the entirety of SAND. Would it be fair, then, to call SAND something akin to NAO 2.5? Not in the least. This is its own album and own project with its own purpose, meaning, and direction. Anyone who loves NAO will additionally throw her or his love to SAND. But, SAND is something different and original.
As the opening line of the album states, “There’s weather enough for us all.” Whether Healy meant this to have a double meaning or not, it comes with one for the listener. Healy’s certainly not distancing himself from NAO, he’s just noting there’s much to do, much to discover, and much to create.
Yet, this is clearly a Healy project. There are just two things that Healy will never be able to escape, though I also very much hope he never tries. First, Healy has one of the most distinctive voices in the rock world. It has the depth of everything David Longdon brings to Big Big Train and the lush beauty (yes, I’m calling a man’s voice beautiful, as it is) of Leah McHenry or Sarah McLachlan. It carries the urgency of Catherine Wheel but also offers the varied tones (sorry, I’m not a musician, so I might not be using the proper terminology) of what Andy Partridge was capable of with the best of XTC, such as what he did on The Big Express. Healy’s voice is the music, to a large extent, and the other instruments really serve to augment what he’s capable of, vocally.
An Artist Colony
Kscope, the home of Healy’s music, seems a small but mighty paradise to me, the equivalent, from a century ago, of the artist colonies of Ditchling in England or Taos in the United States. In the morning, you work in the fields, in the afternoon, you learn to blacksmith, and in the evening, you write and tell stories around the hearth, all of it in good company.
I also imagine Kscope, in much more modern terms, as the English equivalent of Pixar, a place of toys, machines, spaces, treats, delights all available for human ingenuity and creativity to flow. Maybe a Steve Jobs (RIP) or a John Lassiter pops his head into your office every once in a while, giving you the thumbs up and the encouraging smile.
These, of course, are just the passing fancies of a middle-aged American lover of fine music, sitting in his office, recovering from grading 65 final papers.
Still, what I hear in SAND is not a part of my fancy at all, though it certainly tickles it. No, this is reality. And, a beautiful one at that. Even the cover of the album reveals much about Healy’s overall project. SAND, printed in a minimalist font across the front, hovers over a black hole and a swirling galaxy, itself rotating around the abyss. A star, powerful in and of itself and the single brightest element of the cover, keeps its distance from that which would devour it. Yet, more tensions.
I must admit, I hope that Healy does two things in the future, though with no rush.
First, I hope he puts his rather considerable writing skills to creating a concept album. I’m sensing a coherency of ideas running throughout SAND, but it would be wonderful for Healy to be explicit.
Second, I hope he rents an organic space and employs several string and woodwind players, and produces one of the most gorgeous albums imagined. Healy is a natural director and composer, but he does almost everything on SAND via various machines. And, what he does with those machines makes my heart flutter. But, I have to wonder what he would do with a string and woodwind ensemble, recording in an intimate setting. Imagining this, my heart goes beyond the flutters and begins to pound!
A Must Own
So, Progarchists, let me apologize. Had I heard this album prior to December 1, it would have made it—unquestionably—into my top of 2013. Why apologize—because, you need to buy this album. Yes, you need to spend more money. This is a must-own, an aural delight, a real piece of art for the headphones. We need to support the likes of Sam Healy as much as we can. He has earned it, and we owe it to the very ideal of beauty itself.
As a Catholic, I can state that my new year began on the first day of Advent. So, I’m declaring SAND the first truly great work of 2014. Yes, I know I’m cheating. But, I’m cheating for the best of reasons. Maybe, I’m just a Jesuit.
Now, please excuse me. Some suspicious architecture is calling me. . . .