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Black Hearted Brother
Stars Are Our Home Joe Clay , October 22nd, 2013 06:43

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The news that Rachel Goswell is to join Neil Halstead on stage as one of the “very special guests” for his two solo gigs at Cecil Sharp House at the end of the month has been greeted by the majority of press and fans as the long-awaited Slowdive reunion. Which is to completely ignore the fact that the duo remained together long after the break-up of the archetypal shoegazers, making five albums of gorgeous countrified folk as Mojave 3 over the course of 11 years – more than twice the shelf-life of Thames Valley’s finest. It's understandable that people would get excited about Halstead and Goswell sharing a stage again – it’s been ten years since that last happened and we are all suckers for a bit of nostalgia these days. Plus, fixating on Slowdive is also logical – Mojave 3 were enjoyed and respected but never adored and (belatedly) influential in the same way that Slowdive were. 

However, all this pining for the past means things that are happening right now might get missed. Like the fact that Halstead has made a brilliant album as Black Hearted Brother – a new band formed with Mark Van Hoen (Seefeel, Locust) and Nick Holton (producer and collaborator on Halstead's recent solo albums) – that is a kindred spirit of the music he was making in his formative years. That's not to say that it sounds much like Slowdive – only ‘(I Don't Mean to) Wonder’ comes close to ticking all the boxes for the shoegaze purists, with its sky-scraping guitars and heavily reverbed vocals, adorned with satellite bleeps. But it is damn good to hear Halstead busting the FX pedals out of storage and making a dynamic, distorted racket after years of hushed, stripped-back folk music.

However, Black Hearted Brother isn't just the Neil Halstead show. This is a proper collective effort with Halstead and Holton contributing songs, while Van Hoen – Halstead's teacher in electronic and ambient music back in the days of Slowdive, an education that bore fruit on 1995's Pygmalion – was brought in to "add a few funny noises and generally add to the chaos.” Opener and title track ‘Stars Are Our Home’ sets the scene, a blissed-out instrumental space-rock jam. ‘This is How It Feels’ weaves together quirky synth lines, propulsive beats and driving acoustic guitars with Halstead sounding like he's singing in near- Earth orbit. The trippy ‘If I Was Here to Change Your Mind’ recalls Playing With Fire-era Spacemen 3, with droning guitar lines, melancholic organs and Halstead’s vocal completely strung out. The poppy groover ‘UFO’ details alien abduction with the catchiest chorus on the album, while ‘Time in the Machine’ builds from acoustic loveliness into a chaotic rush of guitars and tumbling drums and back down again.

‘Got Your Love’ and ‘My Baby Just Sailed Away’ set Halstead’s vocal in the unfamiliar surrounds of an electronic disco throb with dance grooves – it works surprisingly well. The latter's euphoric electro-shoegaze is probably the best example on the album of the influences of the three band members coming together to make a coherent, forward-looking whole.

It's a pretty indulgent affair (Halstead has acknowledged this) with most songs clocking in close to or exceeding the five minute mark; the last couple of tracks are disposable, and anyone pining for a full Slowdive reunion won't be sated by this album – Stars Are Our Home is light-years away from being Just For a Day Part II. But it's time to stop waiting for Slowdive to try and recapture past glories and instead embrace the future. Halstead moved on a long time ago, and it’s time we did too. 

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