Neil Halstead will be familiar to many as one of the main driving forces behind shoe gaze stalwarts Slowdive and country folk band Mojave 3, and is part of the trio, along with Mark van Hoen (Seefeel, Locust) and Nick Holton (who produced and appeared on Halstead’s recent solo albums), who go to make up Black Hearted Brother. With all three penning songs for this album, however, it seems a genuinely collaborative project rather than a Halstead vehicle.
Before going any further with this review though I think that I should state that I was never a particular fan of either Slowdive or Mojave 3, it’s not that I didn’t like them I just never got round to them. As a result I am approaching this album with something of a clean slate as far as Halstead is concerned. So when I say that this album has completely blown me away I am doing so from a fresh perspective rather than one tinged by a huge knowledge and appreciation of Halstead’s earlier work. That it not to say that his past cannot be identified in the album with tracks such as (I Don’t Mean To) Wonder, Got Your Love and If I Was Here To Change Your Mind bearing considerable influence from shoegaze bands. Yet these are not straight nostalgia trips though but contemporary sounding songs which bear the hallmarks of a band as influenced by current psych trends (well this is released on the Sonic Cathedral label) as anything else. This is a good thing because shoegaze for me marks a moment in time, these tracks have moved on!
This album, though, does not just mark a new (albeit effective) rendering of an existing genre but is so much more than that. This is an eclectic album which covers lots of bases, many of them new ones, and never does it less than well. UFO is a track which begins with Nick Drake vocals and guitar before heading off on a big fuzzy riffing chorus, before heading back to Drake again for the verses. Time In The Machine is track that starts very simply and gradually builds in complexity, drops into a kind of singer/songwriter lull and then at times sounds like two tracks playing at once (I had to check what was also open on my laptop the first time I played it) with dissonance competing for your ears with a straightforward and lovely melody before finding a beautiful acoustic resolution. The album then jumps straight into the initial electronica of Oh Crust, which on first listen sounds like a straightforward track, but is far more layered than that. I imagine that this whole sequence of these two tracks may, in microcosm, somehow reflect the process of making such a complex and varied album.
This is what I love about this record. There are so many great ideas here that could be competing for room resulting in lesser, more confused, tracks. But here they all make sense and fit together in a coherent whole. A case in point is Take Heart which, on its own, is such a beautiful song with hugely emotive vocals; rendered more so through its place within the context of the whole album.
With Stars Are Our Home Neil Halstead is most definitely back, as is highlighted through the penultimate track I’m Back, but, with van Hoen and Holton, Black Hearted Brother have produced an album of intense, eclectic and involving songs which are hugely listenable. It is an album that is not afraid to acknowledge the past, but is very much located in the present. I have a feeling that this is an album that will keep on giving and I really cannot wait to hear it on vinyl.