Grappling Hooks, the debut record by North Atlantic Oscillation, is a wondrous experience. Fusing elements of post-rock, synth pop, electronica with fearless experimentation, it’s surprisingly melodic and cohesive. However, as is sometimes the case, it is best heard in small doses; hearing the entire thing at once can be a chore.
The duo of Ben Martin (percussion, programming, synths) and Sam Healy (vocals, guitar, bass, saxophone, and more) met in Edinburgh in 2005. They spent several years fusing influences like Brian Wilson, GS!YBE, Blur, Orbital, Sigur Rós, The Flaming Lips, and Radiohead (of course) into a spectacular live show. They’ve also toured with Explosions in the Sky, White Dwarfs, and Everything Everything, to name a few. The result is a smooth combination of classic 1960s pop production, laptop programming, soothing vocals, and pure excitement.
With dissonant chord changes and a falsetto outcry, “Marrow” begins. Soon synthesizers go crazy and drums crash, and Healy’s voice melts into the mix. With “Hollywood Has Ended,” the duo proves that melodies and songwriting are just as important as wild electronic fanciness. Healy’s voice possesses lush warmth; it’s very reminiscent of recent pop greats Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals) and Todd Casper (the Great Depression), and overall the album as a whole feels like a more structured Engineers record.
While most of Grappling Hooks sticks to a simple formula (catchy songs underneath outrageous yet ingenious production) that make it both accessible for English dance clubs and complex enough for deep analysis, some tracks are totally unexpected (in a good way). “Audioplastic,” with it’s manipulation of rhythms as well as effects, is rather progressive, and “Star Chamber” mixes the guitar riff focus of recent Porcupine Tree with the delicate piano of earlier Porcupine Tree, and the whole thing is wrapped in a hectic synth blanket. Nearly every second on here is fascinating.
While quite brilliant overall, Grappling Hooks can be a bit overbearing if listened to in one sitting. The heavy emphasis on electronica gives the whole album a similar sound, and while NAO do their best to make each track unique, the arguably unavoidable way it blends together equates to some repetitiveness and redundancy. Still, compared to similar artists, it’s very diverse and intriguing, so NAO do it better than most.
Grappling Hooks would be a great album if it was done by a full band well into their career; the fact that it’s a duo’s first album makes it a tremendous accomplishment. Martin and Healy are a perfect team—they create and perform like two halves of a visionary whole—and they easily earn their place on Kscope Records fantastic roster. You’d being missing out on something special if you didn’t give Grapping Hooks a spin.