Halls – Ark (album) (No Pain In Pop)

What it says on the tin and what it actually is can often be quite different things. However, in the case of Halls debut album, ‘Ark’, the product description on the website of record label No Pain In Pop hits the mark.

Halls is the solo project of 21 year old South London musician Sam Howard and the maturity showcased, both musically and emotionally, defies what one might believe a 21 year old is capable of creating.

Comparisons to Efterklang, Bon Iver, The xx, Burial, Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser, and the astute reference to Thomas Köner, are all certainly valid. Specifically, Halls takes cue from Burial’s use of Könertype ambience that linger on top of and between notes (listen to “Holy Communion”), however Halls is less beat-driven than Burial and certainly not danceable. There are also hints of The xx but less hooky and song-oriented. The blips, beats, electronic glitches and the contradiction and juxtaposition of strings and grand pianos so often heard in Efterklang and on Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’ can also be found. The sombre qualities, church choirs and intricate production work however give Halls plenty of characteristics of its own.

An extremely solemn album, ‘Ark’ contains 11 tracks, the large majority of which could be considered ‘hymns’ with their sombre characteristics, monotone vocal melodies and mournful church choirs.

This is not music to listen to casually. The funeral organs of opening track “I” immediately send the listener into a reflective and meditative state and give the listener a taste of what’s to come; meditations on loss and grieving.

Sparingly struck minor piano chords set the framework for the melancholy “White Chalk”, which has echoes of ‘Fljótavik’ by Sigur Ros. A minimalist and plodding beat, which resembles The xx enters at 1:30 followed by a Renaissance choir. Combined with Howard’s choir-boy like vocals, “White Chalk” transforms into what can only be described as funereal.

“I’m Not There” immediately recalls Bon Iver with Howard’s vocal equal parts soulful and mournful. One of the more hooky and melodic songs, the song’s complex arrangement however sees the final minute occupied by Köner like dark ambience.

“Roses For The Dead” features ‘The Eraser’ type blips and two-step scratchings over choir boy vocals, synth bells and deep synth rumblings. Wait for the menacing strings during the chorus at 1:45, which contains an Enigma like etherealness.

The title track is a reflective score-like piano interlude that leads to “Funeral”, another one of the more tuneful numbers, which revisits the influence of Burial. The hookiest song on the album would be “Shadow of the Colossus”, which has the vocal hook “this only happened once” set to the beat of The Eraser type stylings. “Shadow of the Colossus” also sees the arrival of live drums incorporated in Halls brilliant production technique.

“Reverie” is an album highlight and it too blends electronic and acoustic drums but goes a step further introducing a muted and detuned acoustic guitar and…wait for it…a groovy bass line. Make no mistake though “Reverie” is ever mournful. If there’s one minor criticism of ‘Ark’ however it’s that many of the songs contain similar vocal melodies. Listen out for the Thom Yorke style falsetto around 2:40, which hints at another side to Howard’s voice.

An extremely impressive debut, ‘Ark’ has a time and place in your record collection but given its extremely solemn nature, it’s not something you’d want to visit too often.

‘Ark’ was released today, 22 October and is available on 12” vinyl, CD or digitally via the No Pain In Pop store.

Stream the album in its entirety via the No Pain In Pop SoundCloud page and/or listen below: