Churches are fascinating places. Their atmosphere and presence of these buildings have a magnificent effects on people. It is no wonder some musicians are attracted to them, recording albums and performing gigs in them. Halls is clearly enticed by churches, and indeed religion; many of the song titles and structures on his debut full length, Ark, have religious connotations. In every church there is a towering instrument that is almost as evocative as the building itself, and which has been historically used when the bride is walking down the aisle, or at a funeral dirge. But Halls bring the organ out of the church and into contemporary music; and the album opens with gloomy drones.
Halls is the solo project of 21-year-old south Londoner Sam Howard. Earlier this year he released the Fragile EP, which demonstrated Howard’s mastery at creating a grey soundscapes. Ark continues where his EP left off with downtempo, jittery electronic tracks, enhanced with powerful organ chords. Stillness and space here are as effective as any instrument, with moments of quiet exaggerating simple instances of sound to great effect. It is quite a skill to be able to use silence to elevate a recording. Just like a scientist experimenting in a laboratory, trying to find the right mix of one chemical in relation to another, musicians tinker away in studios, working out when the stillness is best supplemented with beats. Halls has managed to find just the right formula.
The opening of I is reminiscent of a funeral dirge and leads into White Chalk, which is just as spine chilling. Its organ-led intro reaches a sudden halt followed by silence, reawakened as a beat thuds abruptly into life with the track blossoming around this beat as a centrepiece. Alongside these beats an enchanting choir produce an angelic sound as this striking song reaches its incredible climax. Throughout the record Howard’s voice is comparable to that of Thom Yorke; likewise the sound of the album is similar to the atmospheric electronic noise of Yorke’s solo work. Yet on I’m Not There Sam Howard’s vocals recall Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, with melodies swelling over haunting ambience. Funeral could easily be mistaken for a track on Radiohead‘s Kid A, with its eerie vocals and electronics adding up to a mesmerising listen. Holy Communion sounds as religious as the title of the track suggests as it ebbs away with a spacious feel, before an explosion of noise cuts away with beats colliding in front of a swirling mix of tingling atmospherics.
For all the craft that Sam Howard shows on Ark there are moments when you become lost and entangled in the isolation. The nature of the tracks at times overshadows the beauty that Howard is trying to architect on each song. Beside the standout moment on White Chalk, the remaining tracks blend into a long soundtrack of remoteness and loneliness. Sam Howard may deserve credit for being able to claim he has created a complex and flowing piece of music., but some more wow moments over the course of Ark wouldn’t go a miss. Howard himself is not religious, even if the many references suggest its influence on his work. It all adds up to an album you want to believe in.