words by maria sledmere
Occasionally a record falls into your lap and momentarily splices apart what you know as reality, exposes beyond as a luminous wound. Hirola’s eponymous debut, a mini-album released through Phantom Limb on limited cassette and download only, invites you into the space between things: a complex universe of bewildering scale, where the smallest molecule of dust might sparkle with the elemental grandeur of Jupiter. Listening to Hirola on cassette, softly filtered by the sleepy white noise of my hi-fi stereo, I’m easily seduced by these eerie landscapes, their intricacy and subtlety. Hirola comprise Bristol-based producers LTO (formerly of acclaimed electronic outfit Old Apparatus) and edapollo (signed as a solo act to Bad Banda and Svnset Waves). Sharing the production, LTO provides piano and edapollo vocals. Together, they spin a compositional latticework of ambient pleasure and classical flair. What grows out of this mingling is a solid, urgent set of songs, flirting with pop melody above esoteric groundwork and obscure mythology.
The word ‘hirola’ refers to a rare type of antelope, native to Kenya and Somalia and critically endangered. Hirola’s music bears the momentous sense of hurtling away from something, but within it there’s also a vulnerability: a retreat into warm, heartbeat soundscapes that teeter on the verge of abyss or extinction. It’s difficult not to feel utterly blown away by the complex layering that makes up a track like “Fields”, with gelatinous synths which pulse with dance-floor drama over hushes, whale cries and shimmering arpeggios. There’s an interesting trend for a sort of deconstructed pastoral in the current pop environment, from the playful shrills of Alt-J’s “Garden of England” interlude to the sinister warp-rock of These New Puritans’ “We Want War”, from their aptly-named 2013 album, Fields of Reeds. “Fields” paints a histrionic canvas of a haunted England, the sense of a climactic (read also: climatic) hurt throbbing underneath its vaudeville reverb, overlaid by woozy insect ticks. This is an England prone to flooding, freak weather and spooky mists: these “fields of scarecrows” aligning a petrified horizon on the brink of disaster—“I lie awake here / until the storm comes in.”
“Hollow” bursts through with the energy of this storm, moving unpredictably to higher climes. Its slowly building synths, techno shivers and brooding pedals give rise to a murmured refrain: “Return to me.” As the chorus swells with exhilaration tricky to resist, vocals blurring into echoing cross rhythms, what dominates is less meaning than a visceral quality of mood: conveying a place where shadows expand then recede, where longing itself is supplanted by the increasing angst of its beat.
Where vocals loom in and out of focus, like someone adjusting the pitch on a vapourwave remix, sound meets its sweetest distortion. Some of the beats evoke Drexciya’s inward-spiralling, subaquatic disposition; but what Drexciya turn into darkly effervescent techno, Hirola make into lurid, addictive melodies—owing as much to Thom Yorke’s crooning, tuneful sensitivity as to straight-up, white hot pop. Vocals fold like shuddering cries and you find yourself swept up in clicks and handclaps, the myriad distractions which accumulate their cyclonic, sonic debris.
Side B of Hirola feels considerably more downtempo, with “Lonesome” structured around sparse claps and poignant, almost soulful harmonies—stammering then unfurling with tessellating effect. What entrances is the beautiful mastering and production, which oscillate between intimacy and a sublime expansion of audible panorama, directed by subterranean, rumbling bass. Hirola was mastered by Taylor Deupree of 12k Mastering (Loscil, Hauschka, Ryuichi Sakamoto), and his experience with crafting atmospheres all tender, sinister and mysterious at once lands well here. As understated beats provide a balanced structure for scintillating synths, which sound like a star being squeezed, there’s a lovely melting away into bliss.
Penultimate track “Meliae” draws us into its alluring fold with warmly percussive celestial trills, and thick echoes which ring back in a round-like harmony, perplexing the ears to attention. Sound falls away, then accumulates in layered arpeggios, soft twangs of electric guitar. In Greek mythology, the Meliae were nymphs of the ash tree, born from the drops of blood that spilled on Gaia (Earth) when Cronus castrated Uranus. Even in the song’s seraphic soundscape, there’s a sense of implied violence—made more explicit as it dissolves seamlessly into “No Return”, a song which ends with disorientated conversational sampling, the dwindling chimes of melodies flickering, fading. I’m picturing a monochrome video of the Earth spinning round in space, projected through a television whose image keeps interfering with static. I’m trying to remember the colours of green, of blue, as those sounds swirl round and round like cigarette smoke or poison cloud. As the song draws to a close—once again white noise—there’s the sense of planetary grandeur but then also, suddenly, a fragility. A cassette’s last click into silence.
As a whole, Hirola veers between breathtaking ambience and sheer euphoric melody. The pair’s Byzantine skill for interweaving elaborate melodies while still preserving a spacious tranquility feels completely effortless. I wrote this review, perhaps suitably, with a whole city’s worth of fireworks popping in the vat of darkness beyond my bedroom window. What occurs in those skies could be the Anthropocenic reality of the world’s end—of “No Return”—rendered as a soundtrack to some other coruscating, light-splitting beauty. When everything around us starts to shift out of scale, seems even unreal, music like Hirola’s can tune us in again. Where are we in the atmospheric surges of otherworldly noise, those glistering and lush Boards of Canada-style vistas of sound? It’s no good just fetishizing the sublime; this record literalises the turbulence of meteorological process beyond emotional metaphor. What emerges is genuine joy, cloaked in the future’s halo of stirring unease. Hirola ask us to slow down our consciousness, even in the maelstrom of material drama around us; to listen to the minuscule shifts, twinkles and bleeps that occur in the turning Earth. To listen to the inside, then again what’s out there; to take our time, remember to breathe.
‘Hirola’ is out November 17, via Phantom Limb
Pre-order it here