[As we near the end of 2016 and folks are posting their “best of” lists, this album stands alone for me as my favorite recording released this year. This was a review I’d written earlier this year and was previously published at Dirge Magazine. It is no longer on that site, so I am taking this opportunity to give it a home here, where I think it best belongs.]
There is a surreal stretch at the end of an evening of good times that have carried on perhaps an album’s length or a bottle too long. A half-lit, fuzzy spell between two and three in the morning where you’ve had far too much too drink with friends and the euphoric effects of the alcohol are wearing off: you’re left with a sleepy nostalgia for the good times you were having mere hours before and tomorrow’s hangover is a distressing memory that hasn’t happened yet.
You’re in the cramped backseat of a car, cocktail-fevered forehead resting against the cool glass of the passenger side window, your reflection too dark to see. The palm trees are towering overhead–mesmerizing, celestial giants as far away as the distant planets–and the glimmering streetlights are stars that stretch and fade to the edges of your vision like you’re jumping into hyperspace. You want to laugh at the absurdity of the imagery but all of a sudden, and from out of nowhere, this late night is on the other side of too late. This beautiful, astronomical onslaught is too much; it’s triggering memories more terrestrial and summoning that nostalgic, aching void that’s perpetually lurking at the edges of your experience.
I overheard a conversation recently in which it was mentioned that oftentimes one forgets that words ending in “-algia” indicate some sort of pain. So while we frequently refer to nostalgia in a terms of sentimental longing or wistful affection, we cannot deny the twist of the heart that accompanies it, the grief and distress that tinges it. The pain that gives definition to these wispy, amorphous moments, this euphoria we summon and cling to for far too long on evenings like this.
I’m reflecting on these things during my initial listen to British trio HÆLOS’ debut album, Full Circle, which has been described by some as “darkly euphoric dance music”– but I don’t immediately feel like dancing when I hear it. I’m instead reminded of the hair standing stiffly at the back of my neck and my worldview shifting slightly but irreversibly after having heard the tinny, ominous strains of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” on the radio while my mother sunbathed on a sunny afternoon in southwestern Ohio. In my brightly colored J.C. Penney’s sundress I sat still in the flower bed and listened intently, internalizing a despair I couldn’t possibly understand at the age of six, and yet somehow recognizing that one day I would know it all too well. I didn’t feel like dancing then, either.
It was this same visceral reaction that HÆLOS’ nocturnal, throbbing first single, “Dust,” conjured in me when I initially heard it in late fall of 2014, released quietly on Soundcloud. This song, with its otherworldly, multi-layered, airy vocal tracks, reverberating melodies, and the repeated lyrics, “what happened to us?” almost begs the question: You and Me, us? Or the bigger picture Us, all of Us, humanity as a whole? It evoked the compulsion to desperately dial a loved one at the darkest hour of night, just to hear their voice, and have them assure you that they are okay. Or… to assure yourself that you are okay.
There is faint light dawning on the horizon which soon becomes a blinding corona in the morning sky, faithfully moving throughout our day, infinitely shining above. The darkness of the night, the void, and the loneliness abate in the face of this splendid constancy. And too, with a closer listen to the shadowy trip-hop, shimmering electronica, and hushed, intimate lyrics that comprise the entirety of Full Circle, you will hear this gentle movement, this infinite tenderness. It reveals something deeply human, achingly authentic and at its heart, a far cry from the bitter angst of that iconic hit from 1981 that unnerved me so at such a young age: breathtakingly explosive hope.
Hope and human connection are pervasive themes throughout the album. Uneasy reflection on the pain of emotional distance, and “the moment when you are choosing between staying or leaving and the underlying love that keeps you there”– as explained in a statement from the band–is explored in “Separate Lives,” the album’s eighth track and most recent video release.
The band has noted a love of the atmospheric trip-hop and turntablism of the ’90s–Portishead, Massive Attack, and the like–and there is much of that smoky, late night ritual and narcotic, reverberating poignancy to be heard weaving in and out and linking the songs on Full Circle. In particular, “Earth Not Above,” the album’s fifth track, is brimming with this down-tempo, melancholic dissonance, but along with lustrous synth, and cinematic, kaleidoscopic strings, HÆLOS’ sound is wholly their own.
These are songs of grief, and of vulnerability, but ultimately of release: “Some of us need kindness… some people need love” they sing. And in these lush, hauntingly beautiful harmonies on this sweeping, meditative album, it becomes clear that this is the sound of one no longer being alone in the dark; it’s the steady, gorgeous thrum and throbbing heartbeat of a hand in your own.
I had insisted that HÆLOS’ Full Circle doesn’t move me to dance, but perhaps this quiet realization is a still, joyous, hopeful dance of its own.