Review Summary: Ambition and atmosphere combine to create a gripping first album.
North Atlantic Oscillation is ambitious, to say the least. A post-progressive duo (when playing live they add bassist Bill Walsh and sometimes some other guy) comprised of Scottish singer/guitarist/bad saxophonist Sam Healy and (presumably) fellow Scotsman and drummer Ben Martin, they released their gorgeous debut EP, Callsigns in 2009, featuring a radio edit, an original, a cover (The Flamingo's "I Only Have Eyes For You") and a remix for an unreleased track. It was received with great acclaim but leaves one unsure of what to expect for their first full-length.
The opener, "Marrow," begins with a soaring electronic background and Sam's ethereal vocals. It flies above the edge of the ear and slowly grows from lone synth to vocals to bass to pounding drums and then takes a short breath, allowing for a second synth theme to lead into a driving pulse, voiced by guitar stabs and those hazy, hazy vocals and then to lone drums and then back to nothing.
In a way, "Marrow" sets the pace for the entire rest of the record. It's diverse enough to introduce several different musical themes, the sounds (if not the notes) that will pepper the record through each of its eleven tracks.
Let me take a quick breather here to express my absolute undying love for the drums on this album. Ben can be quite jazzy at times, and yet never fails to keep his beats away from the inaccessibility that sometimes comes through the riffs of other jazz drummers. The kit has a very open, spacious, organic sound that fills the ears with delight, and allows for a much warmer tone, even in the electronic chill that soaks the rest of the music. It's very impressive to have such a natural tone in today's world of synthesized drum beats, and this open sound provides a lovely contrast to its surroundings.
North Atlantic Oscillation agrees with the shoegaze genre in that it treats its lyrics as either poetry, to be mulled over, or instrumentation, to be listened to for the sound that the words make rather than the meaning that they have. The lyrics are absolutely gorgeous on this album, but they do take some time to decipher, first through the sonic haze and then through their obtuseness.
The majority of tracks on this album are strangely formulaic, as they all have many of the same elements. While this is expected in an album with such a characteristic sound, it does prevent any musical surprises from sneaking in, and although no Porcupine Tree level variation is present, the sounds are still distant enough to bring the listener true bliss.
"Star Chamber" is the only oddity, with honking, distorted guitar setting it immediately apart. The urgent, sparse instrumentation and comparative lack of electronic elements leave it the black sheep of the album, although it's still a solid contender. The psychedelic vibe and the chirping electronics lead to a separation between this very four-on-the-floor piece and its predecessor.
This awkward separation does, however, lead to greater contrast between the crescendo-based pastoral sweeps of the previous tracks and the tour-de-force that is "Drawing Maps From Memory."
The first North Atlantic Oscillation song I heard was actually Fog Electric's "Savage With Barometer," which admittedly didn't grab me as strongly as "Maps." As soon as I heard the pounding drum/bass/guitar/who-knows-what that leads into the vocoded-to-death singing, I was hooked. The magic of "Drawing Maps From Memory" is that you never quite know what you are listening to. I've been told that the track is classified as post-rock; however, being an avid post-rock listener and having mainly heard repetitive variations of some combination of Explosions In The Sky, sleepmakeswaves, and 65daysofstatic, I wouldn't classify "Maps" as such. It is a euphoria of sound, contrasting ghostly vocals, blended guitar, bass and drums, and twinkling piano in some amalgamation of both minor and major, both harmony and dischord.
On a similar note, "Ritual" finishes the album off with what I can be certain resembles post-rock. It stays very subdued with its staticy intro, reversed vocals and quiet verses, and remains as such until over halfway through, when it explodes into something much greater than the sum of its parts. The chaos disappears as quickly as it came, however, leaving nothing but an awkward, out-of-place drum beat that leaves one feeling violated, bringing to mind the violent finish of Serious Beak's "Taheu Nadryvy, Taheu!"
The abrupt ending of "Ritual" semi-segues into a short hidden piano piece, which, at under 30 seconds, adds very little to the album but hints at something new to come. It's a nice little addition, but the lack of true melody and instrumentation (while still good for a hidden track, it's nothing compared to other hidden tracks like alt-J's "Hand-made" or Thousand Foot Krutch's "The Last Song") behind it fails to impress, especially when compared with the wonder that is "Ritual."
In short, Grappling Hooks is sure to impress. It is a stormy, ethereal adventure through some strange combination of accessible and inaccessible, with enough repetition to prevent a total awe-filled experience but enough truly original groove to warrant a second, third, hell, twenty-sixth listen.