Music by VICE

Hookworms Rose from Rock Bottom to Find Light in Dance-y Escapism

The former psych-heads’ 'Microshift' uses music as a way to escape inner turmoil, rather than wallow in it.

by Tom Connick
Feb 6 2018, 5:00pm

We romanticize few musical locales as much as the dancefloor. Whether you flock to it to make out or mosh, dance or drink, it can offer brief respite from whatever malady smacks you in the gut beyond its walls. That feeling of escapism flows throughout Hookworms’ new album Microshift—and yes, I know that for a noisy guitar band that might seem unexpected. Powered by computerized loops, whoops and whistles, new songs like “Ullswater” and “Boxing Day” wouldn’t sound out of place in a basement club. Listen to either track on headphones and it’s not hard to imagine people with hair plastered to their foreheads by sweat, writhing to these surprisingly upbeat takes on the grim realities of life. Where before Hookworms reveled in guitar-led rage and misery, now they’re embracing a jubilant, pop-tinged outlook. And when you look back at what the band have been through over the past few years, it’s not hard to see why.

A couple of years ago, you couldn't so much as whisper the words "Leeds," "indie," or "scene" without a particularly ‘clued-into-the-underground-scene’ mate chewing your ear off about Hookworms' swarming, noise-psych debut album Pearl Mystic and its 2014 follow-up The Hum. After all, the band had built their name in the north of England on the impact they suddenly made in that world. Driven by the frenzied, muffled yelps of frontman (and reluctant indie spokesperson) MJ, their sound was an intense signature of buzzsaw riffs and rumbling percussion, locked in a never-ending crescendo over five-, six-, seven-minute tracks. It felt overwhelming on record, and positively apocalyptic live; the antithesis of pop immediacy. Two albums to the good, they were critical successes, quickly establishing their niche and thriving within it. But two years later, after a natural disaster struck, things turned exceptionally bleak.

On Boxing Day 2015 a flash flood destroyed MJ’s Leeds recording studio and the band’s practice space. Buoyed by donations as well as contributions from the local council, the subsequent rebuild took months. It was a long and arduous process, with numerous knock-on effects. The flood water trashed thousands of pounds’ worth of merchandise and record stock, and also left MJ without countless personal items, from clothing to his car. What’s more, the flood left the band without a rehearsal space—and when your sound is as exploratory and built on improvisation as Hookworms’, that quickly takes its toll on the writing process. “We stopped songwriting,” bassist MB recently told The Quietus, with the group then consigned to ‘pay as you go’ practices, hopping from gig to gig, with no time to experiment or try anything new. “You cart your equipment in, play, and then cart your equipment out. All we could do was practice for the next gig and we had no time to write.” What once felt like free expression quickly became stifled by circumstance.

When the studio was back up and running, tragedy stuck once more with the sudden death of a close friend of the band. “We've always seen him as the sixth member of Hookworms,” MJ wrote in a heartbreaking statement. “He once told someone he considered himself the fifth member of Hookworms and we wondered who he'd sacked.” It mirrored further personal strife, as MJ openly documented his father’s struggles with Alzheimer’s, and his own with his mental health. Wrapped up in the world’s seemingly relentless, punishing trials, the only thing more dizzying than Hookworms’ gloomy drone was the rate of their own misfortune.

Given the circumstances, you may be surprised to hear Microshift so bathed in light. Opener “Negative Space” is a DFA-nodding, spiralling cut of sparkling synths and arms-aloft celebration, harking back to Hookworms’ two-time party trick of covering LCD Soundsystem albums in their entirety. Much like James Murphy’s merry band always have, “Negative Space” details grief without getting grisly, and finds a danceable spot among the doom and gloom. Elsewhere, “Opener” and “Shortcomings” bloom with bright electronics while documenting the debilitating nature of toxic masculinity. “Static Resistance” (below), perhaps the closest sonic replica of Hookworms’ ‘old sound’ with its motorik pulse and charged-up atmospherics, still surges upwards rather than down into the murky depths of the depression it describes. Without losing sight of the realities of MJ’s lyrical topics, Hookworms have found a way to escape the cyclical, downtrodden nature of their former musical guise.

And so Microshift functions almost like a slate wiped clean. Its sonic escapist’s streak is no fluke—it’s a by-product of Hookworms’ expanding range of influence. “All of us have been listening to more electronic music,” MB told The Quietus last month, “We’ve been listening to more techno over the last five years and that type of music has probably taken over from listening to guitar bands.” It’s a tonal shift that will be familiar to anyone—myself included—who has found themselves ditching the ‘us vs. them,’ ‘real music vs. computers’ mentality of growing up around guitar music, and finding beauty in the transcendence of electronic music. Genre pioneer Jeff Mills has spoken extensively of the techno producers’ desire to create sound which engulfs the listener, and revels in that sense of escapism. “You lose the calendar, you lose the territory, you lose who made it—all that just kind of fades away,” he once said in a 2013 interview with The Skinny, “You don't know where you are, you don't know what you're listening to, and it doesn't matter. That's the objective.”

This act of giving over to music’s celebrative power is particularly vital to Microshift’s makeup. Hunched over his keyboards and screaming his guts out, the MJ of old never seemed to be so much exorcising his demons as channeling them. Now it’s not too much of a stretch to picture him and the band dancing, losing themselves to the explosion of sound onstage. There comes a point in dealing with any hardship where wallowing in the mire no longer helps with the healing process; you have to pick yourself up, and get back on your feet. With Microshift, Hookworms have found that sweet spot, and written an album for the dancefloor, in all its romanticized, escapist beauty.

You can find Tom on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

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