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West of Eden Cal Cashin , February 10th, 2020 10:01

A year or so on from the dying of the hype, HMLTD's debut album somehow manages to be everything and nothing at the same time, finds Cal Cashin

London’s HMLTD have enjoyed one of the more interesting career arcs of the last five years. The Band To Watch in 2017 cultivated a substantial following off the back of their first two singles; the genre skipping double A-side ‘Stained/Is This What You Wanted?’ and the pre-Old Town Road cowboy trap number ‘To The Door’ cemented their reputation as an exciting musical force.

The buzz of the early singles combined with the “fully realised phantasmagoric spectacle” of their live shows drummed up further hype. In these, they’d add immersion to their tight live performances by lavishly decorating venues in what looked like sculptures made out of sex toys, props from fantasy porn films and repurposed job lots of children’s toys.

In their relative infancy, HMLTD were an exciting band, occasionally spectacular and always intriguing. Even watching the group as a neutral, they must have been a fascinating proposition: six upper-upper-middle class twenty-somethings being allowed to throw oodles of major label cash at their technicolour re-imaginings of pop.

At this point, the band had already amassed a large enough cult following to fill venues like the Scala and the Electric Ballroom, with a crowd also sporting the band’s signature new romantic Pierrot schtick.

However, following the lukewarm single 'Satan, Luella and I', HMLTD retreated for a bit to work on their major label debut. Murmurs of discontent stirred. Perhaps Sony didn’t have the ultimate alternative-mainstream crossover group they thought they had, and perhaps HMLTD didn’t really have an unquestioning, bottomless cashpot from their label boss allies.

A year later, they released an ugly and disjointed EP Hate Music Last Time Delete, which fell critically flat. Too many major label compromises, and not enough moments of real quality, the band were promptly dropped by Sony. Following that, they stooped further, with the standalone single ‘Flex’: a flailing bourgeois take on hip hop with precisely no target audience. It felt like HMLTD’s best days were behind them. It felt like this might be the last we heard of 2017’s next big thing.

“The film ‘Yesterday’”, I joked mid-2019, “but I’m the only person that remembers HMLTD.

“And I choose to do nothing about it.”

But, to the band’s credit, they have managed to pick themselves up from the bureaucratic strife. Some time after it felt like HMLTD were destined to just burn out, the group are now releasing a full length debut album: West of Eden .

It’s a multi-genre affair that contains a lot of songs from the band’s early Windmill scene days, hand in hand with some new compositions. an admirable effort, considering the band’s tribulations, but one that ultimately sees the band fail to live up to their own daring ambitions.

Most new bands nowadays claim to traverse multiple genres, but this is HMLTD’s calling card - in fact, it might be their only real strength. In the band’s early days singer Henry Spychalski would talk of wanting to cram as many genres and motifs into songs as possible to match the shortening attention spans of Gen Z music fans.

For example, on early single ‘To the Door’, which is shoehorned onto the album, twanging Del-Tones riffed verses are crudely fused to a trapping chorus with the hammiest of fists. Early album skit ‘The Ballad of Calamity James’ sounds like a repurposed blooper from a Morricone score, whilst minute long ‘Joanna’ has a touch of the mariachi about it. This commitment to never settling on one sound is genuinely intriguing throughout.

When the band get things right, as they do for large patches of lots of songs, they’re somewhat electrifying; but just as the genre sways like Foucault’s pendulum, so does quality. There are moments of brilliance here; early live favourite ‘Where’s Joanna?’ is a higgledy-piggledy guitar romp in a world of its own, and the desert rock blasts on flaky lead single ‘Loaded’ are euphoric; but some moments are truly terrible.

‘Mikey’s Song’ is a soft rocking power pop ballad, with a synth line that is oddly reminiscent of Peter Kay’s da-on-keys Soft Cell sketch, which ventures deep into the territory of the saccharine, whilst similar can be said of Arcade Fire-cum-Hoosiers number ‘Blank Slate’. Meanwhile, there are fairly forgettable contemporary-sounding pop tunes that fail to spark to life, like ‘149’ and ‘Nobody Stays in Love’, the latter of which has a chorus nabbed right from under Bruno Mars’ nose. Mars doesn’t mind though, he wouldn’t use it anyway.

However, the real moments that hold this record back come from Spychalski’s lyricism. Opening gambit ‘The West is Dead’ is a real guttural stomper of the ‘electronic rock’ genre, dogged down by pseudo-philosophical lyrics like: “the Dalai lama wore Dolce and Gabbana in Vermillion red, and the West is dead”. Indeed, there is a really weird self importance to Spychalski’s lyricism; ‘Satan, Luella and I’ is a 6 minute lyrical stinkbomb, and ‘Loaded’ sees the single poshest voice ever to grace a rock song yelping: “I sold my soul to the devil tonight, because I was pretty fucking poor.” It really is prawn sandwich brigade rock and roll.

This, combined with the biblical album title, and the fact HMLTD constantly insist that nothing is ironic and that it should be taken at face value, gives the impression of a group that have a very high opinion of themselves. Considering the band spend large periods of time sounding like a cross between third album Kasabian and fifth album Kasabian, haven’t really earned that yet, have they?

West of Eden is a flawed album, a patchy album, and an album with some really bad lyrics in it. But nonetheless a very fun record. It might lose its magic quickly, as most of the thrill comes from the band’s willingness to skip from genre to genre, but every so often you can forget the flaws and get lost in the many worlds it tries to create.