Floating In Space: Teeth Of The Sea Take Off With New Album Hive

Whether they're soundtracking the moon shot or whipping out pop bangers, their latest album finds Teeth of the Sea's ambitions expaning in all directions, finds Jared Dix

Photo by Al Overdrive

We should all probably know better than to make judgements based on covers. But Hive’s certainly is a weird and evocative combination: a macro image of a wasp in front of a floppy disk. The disk in this context unavoidably recalls the storied sleeve for New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. But where forty years ago it was a startling futurist vision it is now, essentially, dead technology. The ways in which that resonates with the wasp and the hive are not clear but you don’t often get an easy reading with Teeth Of The Sea. It’s one of their strengths that they feed a lot into the grinder but let their music take its own course.

True, this album features a few more 80s sounds of the kind that might once have been stored on disk, but more particularly the potent mix of rock and electronic music achieved by New Order on ‘Blue Monday’ represents a tradition to which Teeth Of The Sea could be comfortably aligned. Of all the things they can do, the one that seems to resonate most strongly is this supple blend of electronica and post rock. Their biggest, boldest, tunes rattle along on the underground line where tired genres catch one another’s glazed eye and begin a new adventure.

Hive’s contribution to this lineage is ‘Megafragma’. Ironically named for a genus of tiny wasps, it’s a huge, chaotic, nine-minute monster of urgent motion. Driven by a deep subterranean pulse and dragging layers of synth, abstract street noise and muttered vocal snatches along with it. Rumbling relentlessly on, it has an almost environmental sense of endlessness. Unclear on quite how to rein it in, the track became a collaboration with the band’s engineer and co-conspirator Giles Barrett who was handed the responsibility of shaping the final mix. Although the result is by some way the longest track, its energy never flags and indeed it still feels as if it continues on without us after it fades away.

But the album’s most surprising moment comes in the form of the wonky pop number, ‘Butterfly House’. Surprising because it’s a song. An actual pop song with words and a chorus and all the stuff that goes with it. Confusingly, but unmistakably, this is new territory for Teeth of The Sea. As lovely as it is unexpected, it’s sung sweetly and breathily by Kath Gifford (The Wargs, Snowpony) over pretty, sort-of-80s synth pop with a range of textured guitar daubs and a frenzied solo from Jimmy Martin. Shimmering and sunshine yellow, its delicate beauty contrasts subtly with Hive’s sinister vespine cover star.

Hive takes its name from Frank Herbert’s novel Hellstrom’s Hive and is also inspired by seventies sci-fi horror Phase IV, both disturbing tales of the rise of insect-human hybrids. It’s all very ‘I for one welcome our new insect overlords’ type stuff. Not that Hive is really a concept album or indulges any kind of narrative. The subterranean bug people vibes are mixed up with other elements. Teeth of The Sea tend to keep things in flux, their experiments producing music that is exploratory and surprising rather than simply difficult. Even if the big surprise this time turns out to be a couple of tracks with vocals. Amid all the images of fluttering, flickering, wings in ‘Butterfly House’, there’s also room for a nod to the infinite with the line, “been so long since you launched into space.”

Following their last album, Wraith, the band were invited to live soundtrack the Apollo’s Moon Shot documentary at London’s Science Museum. It would not have been unusual for them to then turn that work into a full album release, but typically the band seem to have considered it too obvious a move. So they’ve just reworked some of it, editing down from longer pieces. Three tracks (‘Artemis’, ‘Æther’ and ‘Apollo’) mark the beginning, middle and end of Hive. Offering appropriately spacious and tranquil atmospheres that are easy to imagine drifting on far longer. ‘Artemis’ opens the album with the feeling of heading out into the endless. Sam Barton’s trumpet winds outwards above the clicks and bleeps of launching machines. At the midway point, ‘Æther’ glides weightlessly into a cloud of dubbed-out trumpet, punctured by a distant voice which, distorted beyond comprehension, emphasises a sense of isolation. ‘Apollo’ closes the album with a melodic and melancholy vision of the earth from the moon.

Hive is framed but not defined by this ‘Apollo Suite’ which wraps around the album’s disparate impulses, helping to hold together their most varied collection of music yet. The graceful ascent of ‘Artemis’ is brashly knocked aside by the dark, banging electro of ‘Get With The Program’, the other vocal track, this time sung by Mike Bourne. It is noisy and propulsive, possessed of a nocturnal menace and almost the opposite of ‘Butterfly House’ which its abrupt ending runs into. Filling out the first half, ‘Liminal Kin’ may be the closest thing to something we might expect from the album’s artwork. Busy and insectoid it has the controlled teeming energy of a hive moving to their own unreadable patterns, mutating crunchy cinematic techno into a dense bundle of hiss and twisting arpeggios.

On ‘Powerhorse’ they pull together various strands for something else again. Slotting perfectly between ‘Megafragma’ and ‘Apollo’, it’s the most 80s sci-fi-flavoured thing on the album. A slowed electro, boom bap, synth jam floating in orbit and gazing sadly back at the earth, invoking an old Black Sabbath lyric as a kind of eco elegy, “I don’t believe there’s any future in cars”. Both sad and filled with wonder, the track is delivered with the most delicate of touches. Teeth Of The Sea have always been a band apart, adrift in their own sonic universe but they don’t assault you with it.Their music is nuanced. The scope and ambition on Hive is remarkable. It rewards close attention.

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