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Michael O’Neill
The Binary Order Noel Gardner , April 22nd, 2019 11:02

The debut album by Mancunian poet, musician and writer, Michael O’Neill takes a while to get on board with, but once you're there, you'll be richly rewarded, finds Noel Gardner

When Mancunian poet, musician and writer Michael O’Neill released his first EP, in the bygone age of 2013, and played live shows largely drawing on it, for this listener at least, it took a while to get on his level. The same is true of The Binary Order, his debut album, but for different reasons. The EP, self-titled and released by the Gnod-affiliated Tesla Tapes, featured lo-fi electro-noise backing by that band’s Chris Haslam in his Dwellings guise; O’Neill’s lyrics, often irate and nearly always bleak in their meticulous eyeing of drug culture and north-western gangland, were every bit as on-the-nose. First impressions might have masked some of the dry humour and lyrical fluidity.

Five and a half years on, anyone drawn to O’Neill’s evocative scene-conjuring and half-spoken, half-rapped Manc-accented vocal style – on that EP, or his couple of contributions to Gnod releases – should have no quarrel with The Binary Order. Musically, this is a far subtler, denser, more considered affair – as it probably should be, given its gestation, but Sam Weaver (also of the Gnod multiverse), O’Neill himself and electroacoustic musician Danny Saul have combined for something that’ll likely need several listens before you start to absorb it. There are uptempo and/or relatively direct thumpers here, sure. ‘One Rule’, the album’s one pre-release teaser track, is low-slung industrial hip-hop on the subject of Britain’s de facto caste system; ‘Breakneck Pace’ demonstrates that O’Neill can actually rap and sounds a bit like Dälek doing ‘91-era proto-hardcore, with some acid synth lines which return for album closer ‘Insecure Subordinate’.

Elsewhere, components abrasive and elegant achieve harmony: sludgy-tempo techno, vaguely Eastern European-sounding strings, sampled dialogue from a cistern-ful of the plum-voiced. ‘Cultural Capital’ is about faux-sophisticat artworld posers (most of the tropes invoked are pretty recognisable, but O’Neill makes it sound very specifically targeted) whose haunted-mansion drones and creaks build in intensity, and in tandem with the verbal character assassination. It’s smart fare, and makes it clear what Bristol producers Ossia and Vessel appreciated in this, The Binary Order arriving via their raucous FuckPunk label.

The late-on juxtaposition of ‘Modern Industry’ and ‘Citizen’ ably highlights Michael O’Neill’s versatility. The former is a spoken-word tale of alcoholic priests and crack-dealing widows, delivered over eerie, glitchy beats and a (not necessarily intentional) sequel to ‘Brighter Britain Today’, from the 2013 EP; the latter a fierce, paranoid-with-good-reason jeremiad about state surveillance whose ire is eventually overwhelmed by its own backbeat, maximalist techno of the late-90s Luke Slater ilk. Until now, Michael O’Neill has pretty much been a ‘those who know, know’ sorta figure, but word of mouth isn’t enough for an album this good.

The Binary Order by Michael O'Neill is available from FuckPunk records