Album Reviews

The High Llamas – Hey Panda

(Drag City) UK release date: 29 March 2024

Eleventh album from Sean O’Hagan and co is a remarkable, joyous and life-affirming record, a testament to remaining musically open-minded and progressive

High Llamas - Hey Panda In a musical sense Sean O’Hagan leads something of a dual life. He may be best known as the inventive, driving force behind The High Llamas but, certainly over recent years, more of his time has been taken up with producing and providing arrangements for the music of others. Both roles have resulted in him occupying a creative space somewhat under the broader public radar. His work as part of The High Llamas, although loved by a modest group of loyal, long terms fans and in receipt of consistent critical acclaim, hasn’t really resulted in a wider awareness. The valuable work he contributes to the music of others meanwhile doesn’t always receive the prominent acknowledgment it deserves.

The release of the 11th High Llamas album (the first since 2016’s Here Come The Rattling Trees) might not change that but it certainly reinforces the view that O’Hagan is a special composer and bandleader of note. It sees him push himself creatively further than he’s ever done to date, delivering a unique, fascinating, compelling album in the process. He’s always been an omnivorous lover of music, with an encyclopaedic knowledge to boot, equally at home with classic guitar-based sounds, hip hop/R’n’B, world music, soundtracks or things that fall in between the many gaps (something he revealed in our 2019 interview with him).

It all coalesces beautifully on Hey Panda which sees him at his most contemporary sounding and forward thinking, still undoubtedly a High Llamas album but one that has a sound that has been upgraded, reinvigorated and polished brighter than ever before. We get evidence of this on the opening title track, an impossibly catchy and melodically fluid piece which encapsulates the spirit of the album. O’Hagan described how he “wanted it to be a Khalid meets Disclosure tune”, demonstrating the extent to which he’s influenced by contemporary artists (there’s something heartening about hearing an artist in his 60s so in thrall to younger generations).

Fall Off The Mountain sees him go even further, incorporating shapeshifting synths, vocodered vocals and liberated structures, finishing it all off with a sprinkling of magic dust. It features vocals from his daughter Livvy which lend it a further youthfulness, something which defines much of the album. Similar can certainly be said of Toriafan with its electronic gurgles, airy spaciousness and captivating changes of direction.

For all the musical advancement meanwhile there are still nods back to former moments in the High Llamas discography. The bold stylings of Stone Cold Slow recall 1998’s Cold And Bouncy while Bade Amey feels like a continuation on from 2011’s Talahomi Way, exquisite in its underplayed, gorgeous fragility. Elsewhere, Yoga Goat carries notes of the idyllic, near-horizontal, deep tropicalia that has cropped up at various points over O’Hagan’s career.

Other highlights come on those tracks that feature guest appearances from others. Sisters Friends sees Rae Morris duet with a vocodered O’Hagan to sublime effect as playful, percussive synths and elegant strings play out around them. It also feels representative of the modern production values brought to the table by Fryars. Bonnie Prince Billy appears on How The Best Was Won and Hungiest Man (he co-wrote both), the former something of a displaced, white soul meander of sorts which loosely recalls Smile by The Beach Boys. Like all of the tracks here it is rich in detail, not wasting a second and presents O’Hagan as a kind of sonic alchemist, dropping tantalising ingredients into the experimental mix. Both tracks also challenge any pre-held views of Bonnie Prince Billy and to hear him defy any expectations is a rewarding experience.

Ahead of the album’s release O’Hagan commented how he “probably has one artistic record left at 64, so this record had to address what I have come to love”. We can only hope the first part of that line isn’t true, and while Hey Panda has certainly addressed his current musical passions, it has also achieved much more. It’s a remarkable, joyous and life-affirming record, a testament to remaining musically open-minded and progressive, and very much confirms O’Hagan’s under-appreciated genius.

buy The High Llamas MP3s or CDs
Spotify The High Llamas on Spotify

More on The High Llamas
The High Llamas – Hey Panda
The High Llamas – Here Come The Rattling Trees
The High Llamas – Talahomi Way