Matt Hartless is an Irish songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, currently based in Manchester, England. He has, so far, put out three full length studio albums (Our Last Days In The Sun, Victory and this one, The Whisper and The Hurricane, released in August 2017). Aside from these he has also released singles, E.P.s and compilations. His music defies simple genre categorization, encompassing an eclectic range of styles including folk, ska, classical, ambient, flamenco and alternative rock. Sometimes these styles vary and combine within the same song!
This ten track album begins with Rorschach, and as soon as Matt’s rich, harmony layered a capella vocals emerge from the speakers you realize this is not going to be the usual fare. His voice is distinctive and powerful, reaching an almost operatic grandeur at certain moments. It is reminiscent of Muse’s Matt Bellamy and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, though less affected, and he is gifted with an astounding vocal range (as anyone will discover if they listen to the entire album).
Lyrically, like musically, he is very eclectic and varied, mixing the oblique with the concrete and the romantic with the quotidian (this is captured even in the album’s title). These juxtapositions of the internal and external worlds lend the lyrics both a cinematic and imagistic quality that brings to mind T.S. Eliot circa The Waste Land. Lines such as “Analyze my every motive with a questionnaire and a Rorsharch test” seem particularly apposite in this current climate of behavioural scrutiny, both personal and societal.
Rorsharch is itself like an ink blot test, open to interpretation. Musically, it creates an evocative soundscape, with Hartless playing the majority of the instruments, aided by haunting violin lines (courtesy of Mark Humphries). The song is led by the lilting, folk-influenced vocal melody and the memorable enigmatic refrain, “No, I don’t remember at all...” In the second verse he muses, “There was no point to anything we did, till we ran out of time.…” and these themes of existential ennui and an impending sense of apocalypse recur throughout the album.
Second song The Vaulted Lead Ceiling is one of the album’s epics at six minutes long and begins with sparse acoustic guitar set against a sound collage of modern life; street noises, weather and bits of broken conversation. It is more openly personal. as evidenced by the dryly humorous opening line: “I don’t want to live the life of the chronically bored…”.
This elegiac, melancholy and world-weary tone pervades the album in a way that is reminiscent of troubled troubadours from the past like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. The song brings to mind Exit Music (from Radiohead’s magnum opus Ok Computer) in the way it builds from, well, a whisper to a hurricane. To attempt a six minute track like this shows the scope of his musical ambition, and he pulls it off with aplomb.
The following Life In The Tannery is an effective contrast, with it’s samba-esque rhythms and restless, addictive guitar lines. It’s one of two tracks on the album that bring to mind the quirky alternative pop of Badly Drawn Boy and acts as a nice counterbalance to the ‘sturm und drung’ style of the emotionally heavyweight songs that surround it. Lyrically, it deals with the harsh truth that our relationships in life are partly based on projections and illusions: “To pull you from the blizzard, cartwheeling out of sync with the feelings that you perceive: you’re in love with a daydream…“.
Fourth song Waterlilies is arguably the album’s finest moment, drawing from the same well of doomed romanticism as The Smiths and Joy Division, but inhabiting its own sonic landscape entirely. Starting with a jazzy, beautifully simple two-chord piano progression, it develops into a soaring, euphoric ode to the timeless struggles of the human condition. It’s a good example of how he mixes the personal with powerful imagery, so we get: “I stumble through the haze that separates me from the end of days…” mixed in with striking images like ‘bodies in the street trampled by the protesters’ feet’. At the risk of sounding pretentious, you could call this style impressionistic in a similar way to Monet’s painting of the same name.
Fifth track Peace To Camera shows another facet to his oeuvre; an ambient instrumental that shows influences ranging from Sigur Rós and the French classical composer Erik Satie. Ethereal, haunting piano melodies drift and swirl without finding resolution, a mixture of the melodic and the dissonant. Again, you could describe it as an impressionistic painting in sound.
The classical influence continues strongly on the next two songs, Alice Loses Grip and The Science Of Attachment. The former begins with a swirling piano motif before developing into an epic piece of catharsis, lyrically capturing the theme of the album and giving us the source of the title: “The steps towards my hopes and dreams were worth my splitting at the seams, or better not to entertain the whisper and the hurricane…“.
The music is leant weight and stately grandeur by tasteful bursts of brass, adding to the symphonic texture. Matt delivers another stirring vocal performance of soaring intensity, which continues into the following six-minute The Science Of Attachment. This one brings to mind Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata along with the Gallic charm and beauty of the soundtrack to the classic film Amélie. It is in 6/8 time giving it a waltz feel, and violin from Dan Reiss lends it a gypsy vibe.
Emotionally, this song turns up the heat still further, the opening lines desperate and despairing: “I need a miracle or something magical, to prove there is more to life than this….“. Vocally, he channels a blend of Thom Yorke-esque power with the measured restraint of Elbow’s Guy Garvey. It builds to an anguished crescendo before ending on the evocative piano figure with which it began. Superb.
Making Small Fries Illegal is a distinct change of pace, an upbeat piece of indie-pop that brings to mind Mancunian music like, again, Elbow and Badly Drawn Boy. Lyrically, it sardonically deals with our disposability in modern society: “I left the office today, they’re making small fries redundant and I don’t know what to say, they think that I am one of them…..”. The melody really sticks in your mind and makes it a good choice as a single.
The final two songs, Snapdragon and London Will Fall, provide a showcase for both his eclecticism and extraordinary falsetto, especially the latter. Snapdragon shows his Irish roots, a piece of lilting but fiery folk in 3/4 waltz time (for the most part) that brought to mind The Levellers. The instantly memorable fiddle melody sets the tone and Thom Yorke would be proud to have written a line like, “Sleeping pills and aspirin, all to no effect, I’m shocked there’s anyone left….”
London Will Fall is a suitably epic way to end the album, the third to clock in at over six minutes. This one is perhaps best described as progressive ska, starting out in 4/4 then switching to triple time halfway through. As you can tell from the foreboding, yet maybe prescient, title it once again hints at apocalypse though the lyrics are barbed towards someone in particular: “London will fall and I won’t be there and it will all be down to you. Call, but I won’t be coming…we were saving our own skins…“. It builds to a cathartic climax, with his falsetto voice reaching high notes that have to be heard to be believed! A stunning way to finish.
With The Whisper And The Hurricane, Matt Hartless has set the bar very high artistically and provided a powerful, poignant musical document of what it means to be a human being in the early 21st century, with artistic influences drawing back to the 19th century.
While the mainstream has become very much a case of the bland leading the bland, this album offers hidden treasure to anyone who still regards the album as an important art form and dares to delve down the rabbit hole. With any justice, this will still be listened to in fifty years time and hopefully beyond. British music has a new unsung hero.
VERDICT: 9.3 out of 10