South London’s Sam Howard enchanted the world with his widely acclaimed 2012 debut Ark, a deeply personal, dark and introspective collection of music about quiet despair with religious elements abound, despite the claim that he himself was not a religious person at all.
Filled with atmospheric, hauntingly captivating beauty, Ark reached its peak with White Chalk, a remarkable stop-start piece featuring a choir as Howard tapped into the atmosphere held within churches to (barely) flesh out his sparse soundscapes. Howards’ falsetto caused inevitable comparisons with Bon Iver, and the album’s occasionally completely quiet moments somehow elevated the music, with descriptions of ambient, dubstep and electronica all bandied about.
Second album Love To Give replaces the doubt and fear from Ark with hope – at least a glimmer of it. More instruments appear, including brass, as Howard continues his musical evolution, but with many vocals recorded in a large theatre hall, the ethereal presence remains.
The title track opens the album, a skeletal effort that sounds like a church solo throughout its opening section, echoey vocals the dominant ingredient before guitar strumming and minimal percussion leads into a beautiful brass sounding conclusion; it’s over too soon, though. Sanctus is a more haunting affair and there’s a clear likeness to Thom Yorke’s nasal whining evident in the vocals; an atmospheric, quiet passage then appears before guitar strummings reappear, joined by the merest of percussion, until the drums kick in fully to lead to another satisfying yet brief outro. This pattern prevails throughout which is slightly disappointing; with most tracks sitting around the three to four and a half minute mark, there is a case for the majority of these to last a whole lot longer and be so much better for it.
A snippet in the shape of Harmony In Blue lasts barely 50 seconds before the recently streamed, far noisier (in comparison) Waves begins, its slow plodding drums and organ creating another gorgeous, segmented effort. A simple, descending xylophone melody that Chris Martin will feel he should have written then takes hold as a lengthier number, Aria, bewitches with its beguiling dream-like beauty. Piano, accompanying electronica and drumming combine with the usual eerily quiet sections until a lengthy instrumental passage helps to form something more wholesome and complete than the album’s shorter tracks.
You Must Learn To Give Again is another piano led piece that sounds as if it was recorded in an echo chamber; on an album of such melancholic sparseness, this takes that minimalism to a greater, percussionless extreme. Peculiar horn-like sounds introduce Forelsket, apparently a Scandinavian word referring to the euphoria of a new found love. More fleshed out than its predecessor – in parts, at least – it reminds of more Northern European originating music, at times like a cross between Icelandic pair Leaves and Sigur Rós.
The sub three-minute Aside follows a similar path, guitar strumming and vocals the only components of another skeletal opening before gentle percussion and trumpet join the fray. Album closer Body Eraser / Avalanche then completes the set in slightly diverse fashion: more minimalist instrumentation and vocals give way to a brief moment of ambience before manic drums lead the track down a more chaotic, unpredictable path until the calm returns.
Generally, Love To Give is more of the same as Ark; minimalist beauty and emotionally charged solemnity. The album’s strength is undoubtedly within its desperate subtlety. Yet if this new collection is meant to reflect hope, you probably wouldn’t want Sam Howard providing the score for a loved one’s funeral; it might just bloat the sadness to an incomprehensible level.