Hark’s debut full-length Crystalline is a heaving beast of an album that stretches out the bounderies of sludge metal. The songs on the disc are plenty complex with meticulous twists and turns oftentimes honed to perfection. The might of early Mastodon, Crowbar and High On Fire is combined with the technicality of progressive metal and a dash of hardcore pugnacity to dazzling effect. I’ve recently approached Hark’s frontman Jimbob Isaac to talk about the creation process of Crystalline, and his ongoing career as an illustration artist.
Hark is a new outfit, but you also fronted sludge metal luminaries Taint last decade. There’s a 5-year gap between the last Taint release (All Bees To The Sea EP) and Hark’s debut. Why did it take you so long to compose new music?
The space between releases is simple to explain. Forming a brand new band, with a new vision, new personalities and the high quality levels that we committed to producing, is certainly not a quick or whimsical process. Forming Hark was a total gamble, in terms of there being no guarantee as to whether Simon, Niko and myself would even be able to write music together. We worked solidly for 3.5 years, to form the band, and write music that genuinely moves us.
There are certainly some similarities between the sound of Taint and Hark. The sludgy, riff-based approach seems to be intact. But also your new band seems to trade the post-hardcore leanings of Taint for a more complex, progressive metal-echoing style. What exactly dictated this shift in style? Was it a conscious decision or did it happen more naturally?
Nothing conscious was decided in the formation of Hark. Apart from knowing that I would sing and play guitar, and that it would be a collaborative writing process. Hark’s complex edge and progressive leanings come from an unspoken direction that we naturally took together. Simon is a very flexible drummer, and Niko has a very multi-faceted approach to song structure. This combined with my tacit desire to break free of certain limitations that Taint had, has pushed us in those kinds of directions. I still think that my post-hardcore influences shine through in Hark, especially in my vocals. I still hold bands like Fugazi, Quicksand, Jawbox and June of ’44 very close to my heart, and that scene will always influence me. I understand why people make quick references to stoner rock and progressive metal in relation to Hark, but I think that a lot of people don’t see the full picture of Hark’s range of underlying influences.
I’m curious how Crystalline came together. You teamed up with the former Whyteleaf rhythm section of bassist Nikolai Ribnikov and drummer Simon Bonwick. What was your songwriting process like this time around? Did it differ in any way from your previous endeavour?
We worked almost every weekend, for 3.5 years, to discover if it was possible to write music that we could all back 100%. The commitment we put into it was very testing at times, but we pushed through barrier after barrier. We approached Hark as its own entity, with everyone contributing ideas at all stages. You could consider me as the primary riff architect for the album, but each song simply could not have been written without everyone’s input. Niko also contributed some key riffs to the album, and all three of us twisted the song structures into new shapes as we progressed through the writing process. It’s essentially the same process that Taint also prescribed to, with everyone in the band contributing. That’s where un-forseen ideas come out, and where the true magic of a band reveals itself. The unknown. I find that balancing the written riff, with discoveries made between the members in the jam room, is where real uniqueness appears. I can’t imagine writing everything myself at home, and telling my band mates what to play. That seems very sterile and ultimately lacking in vision.
Crystalline is filled to the brim with complexities and constant tempo changes. You certainly are not fond of a traditional verse-chorus song structure, which makes your music not easy to absorb on first listen, but ultimately more rewarding. What do you consider the purpose of your music?
Yes, I believe Crystalline to be an album that gives more to the listener after repeated listens. I find that the slow-burning albums are the most long lasting. This isn’t a throwaway record. I’m sure our complexities are off-putting to some people, but that’s fine, we can’t be for everyone. We wanted to challenge and enjoy ourselves, as well as distance ourselves from tried and tested formulas, and genre-regurgitation. I feel like there are a lot of retrogressive movements in heavy music at the moment, and we wanted to push beyond that. The purpose of our music is to fulfil ourselves, and be the band that we want to listen to, as well as the cathartic release that comes from losing ourselves in this, and simply getting things off our chests. Without wanting to sound too patriotic, we’re also happy to keep flying the flag for Welsh heavy music. Not enough bands break out from Wales, and I’ve been playing out for 20 years now. I have no intention of stopping. People pay so much credence to the American bands that populate this area of heavy music, so I’ll always fight our corner, as I have since the first Taint demo tapes from 1994 onwards.
Crystalline‘s sound is very cohesive. Is there any common lyrical theme behind the songs on the album in relation to its artwork?
The Crystalline visual aesthetic was plucked from one or two lines in ‘Black Hole South West’. It felt like a fitting umbrella title, and something that I could base the artwork on. My lyrical themes are so varied, obtuse and randomised, that I can’t say that there is one unifiying theme throughout. I like the listener/reader to interpret the words. If I tried to explain it all, we’d be here all day. So much of what I write has multiple meaning, reference and sometimes no meaning at all. The world is too fragmented for me to constrict how or what I write.
The record was mixed by Converge’s Kurt Ballou. How did his contribution help to shape the sound of Crystalline?
Kurt makes the best heavy records, in my opinion, so I really wanted his input to this record. We knew that we wanted a live, organic sound, and recording at Monnow Valley Studios in Wales was a must for me. The drum room there is amazing, and I think our snare sounds incredible. Kurt understood the organic nature of the band, and worked hard to echo our natural sound. Our co-producer/engineer Gethin Pearson also contributed to certain tones and the sonic space of the record. I tracked all the vocals in two days, and Gethin’s energy was intrinsic in getting me to work so hard and quickly.
You’re a renowned illustration artist who worked with the likes of Neurosis, Clutch and Orange Goblin. What does your cooperation with bands usually look like? Do you need to listen to an album-in-question first before creating your artwork?
I’ve done a range of illustrations for those bands, for t-shirts and posters, and the covers for Orange Goblin. I love to hear what themes the band have in mind, and like to mesh my ideas with theirs. Listening to the album and pulling imagery from a band’s lyrics is often a good starting point, but the more my artwork evolves, the more my voice establishes itself, and the more control I have over what I draw.
You boast a distinctive, immediately recognisable style, which is always important in any kind of art. How did you come up with your own style?
My style is heavily influenced by my hero: Alphonse Mucha, the Czech art nouveau luminary. I will always happily hold my hand up to his influence before anyone, as I’ve been a devotee of his since I was 16 (I’m now 36). Other influences include the comic books I grew up with, as well as rock album art and current poster artists. I’m not sure if my style is my own, as you could consider me to part of a visual movement, along with my friends John Baizely, Richey Beckett and the amazing Florian Bertmer. I would say we all owe considerable debt to people like Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley, Pushead and many other drawing legends. We all articulate our influences in different ways though. My drawing roots come from filling up sketchbooks as a kid, progressing through art class in school, and taking technical drawing class in college. I’m now using the same pens (Rotring) that I used as a 15/16 year old. I used to draw exploded engines and machinery as part of my tech drawing lessons, so I think that’s where I get my level of tight line work and detail from. My father is also a civil engineer, and draws plans for buildings. Perhaps I get my draftsmanship from him.
What kind of album covers do you like the most yourself? Who are your favourite cover artists?
There are so many I love, and not all of them are hand drawn or painted. I’m a fan of whatever serves the band or album the best, whether that be a photo-based cover or a computer generated image. For hand rendered art, people like Roger Dean and H.R Giger are classic visionaries whose creations are breathtakingly unique.
What do you think the future holds for Hark? Do you have any touring plans or ideas for a new album?
We have some summer festivals; Hellfest and Void Fest (Germany) as well as a show in Paris with Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals. We’re super excited for these dates, and if I could travel back to my 15 year old self and tell him I’d eventually be sharing a stage with Phil Anselmo, my mind would be utterly blown. My mind is blown over it now in fact, so I really can’t wait to play that show. We’ll be touring Europe again in October, with a really cool package that should be announced pretty soon. We want to take this album out to as many people as possible, and we’re also going to start writing again very soon. We’re going to keep this ball rolling.
Stream Crystalline on spotify: