Google “hookworms” and you’re greeted with a barrage of information on a particularly nasty parasitic worm, which infects helpless humans through contact with “hookworm larvae found in dirt contaminated by feces.” Ick! They’re insidious little buggers. Appropriately, Hookworms (the band) has perfected the art of creating synth-rock bangers that that are as crafty and catchy as their parasitic brethren.1
It hasn’t always been this way for Hookworms. While the band developed quite the cult following across the pond with their fuzzy, long-winded psychedelic grooves, the songwriting was noticeably tentative. There was a compelling rawness, but the vocalist Matthew Johnson chose to wash out his voice in noise and reverb (and I do mean “chose” … he was so insecure about his vocal abilities that he deliberately concealed them). But this only buried the masterful ideas bubbling beneath the surface of Hookworms’ music. Thankfully, Microshift strips away much of the fuzz and reverb, brightens the instrumentation and sees Johnson establishing a stunning portfolio of vocal mastery.
Johnson molds his vocal delivery to vocals to fit each track. On punchy opener “Negative Space,” there’s an unhinged quality that reminds me of Local Natives’ Taylor Rice (circa 2009). Later on he channels Phoenix’s Thomas Mars for the serenade of “The Soft Season.” It’s an impressive display of vocal acrobatics. While Johnson should never be ashamed by the insecurity and reported struggles with depression he was going through on past albums, it’s inspiring (and great for the listener) to see someone embrace their talents after dealing with some seriously debilitating shit.
Meanwhile there’s some serious muscle to these grooves. “Ullswater” rides an oddball synth hook before some rapid-fire percussion drives it toward a cacophonous crash of guitars and synths. “Negative Space” — an early2 song-of-the-year front-runner — is a magnificent opus in two parts. The first half is a banger akin to LCD Soundsystem of old, before it suddenly shifts into a blissful groove at the 3:35 mark that ascends into one of the most euphoric rock crescendos I’ve heard in ages.
The U.K. has no shortage of so-called “art rock” outfits — but whereas many put a painful amount of effort into cultivating a sound weird enough to never be mistaken as “pop music,” there’s a refreshing effortlessness to Microshift. It’s the sound of a band breaking through self-imposed barriers, and us dear listeners get to reap the rewards.