Normil Hawaiians

Empires Into Sand

Upset The Rhythm

Four decades after their last album, peripatetic London postpunks return in force

The fourth album by Normil Hawaiians, a band founded in London but with a transient way of living, comes nearly forty years after the recording of the third one. On it, vocalist Guy Smith sung of the police brutality he’d seen New Age Travellers receive at the Battle Of The Beanfield, just months before. Timely social commentary, but for the fact the album (titled Return Of The Ranters) was unreleased until 2015 – prompting a revival of interest in these bohemian postpunks, and in due course a Normil Hawaiians regrouping.

Empires Into Sand, their second 21st-century recording after a 7-inch single released in 2020, is a stylistically varied but strong suite created by a mixture of 80s-era members and younger ones more recently drafted in. Mark Tyler, one of the former, died in late 2022 while the album was being made; its title comes from some of his poetry. Another wordsmith, guest vocalist Rodney Relax, makes their mark on the album with ‘Ghosts Of Ballochroy’: of a similar vintage and background to Normil Hawaiians, he was a guitarist in Scottish anarcho punk stalwarts Alternative and later sidestepped into the poetry underground. This is where we meet him here, a burnished voice and ample Scots dialect carried out to sea by a backing equal parts jazz, rock and ambient electronica.

Normil Hawaiians’ strain of postpunk always sounded distinct from most music catalogued in that (arguably, unmanageably broad) way, and four decades later they come off as still more pastoral and elegaic. From its clarinet intro, you could almost describe something like ‘We Stand Together’ as ‘polished’, though with the English idiosyncracy of Robert Wyatt and a perpetual amateurism, in the best sense and not to be considered a synonym for incompetence, that reins in that tendency.

Synths feature more prominently than ever before, the album opening on an ambient tip (later adding woodwind and bells) with ‘Exiles’. It’s the words on this track, though, which tell us more about the group’s thoughtful ethos. Spoken word by two associates of the band, Vilnis Egle (father of Normil Hawaiians vocalist Zinta Egle) and George Bikandy, describe leaving Latvia and Syria respectively, over 70 years apart but both for war-related reasons. To describe it as timely feels glib, in that it implies a recent past or conceivable future when it wouldn’t be.

Conversely, on ‘Waterfalls: Bedford 330’ the core band write about what they know, or knew. The title refers to a model of flatbed truck which might have been spotted amidst any given traveller convoy of yore. As the musicians kick into a rickety motorik groove, kinda ‘Hallogallo’ meets ‘Roadrunner’, Smith sings of “children from the squats / Children of the sun / Living on the road”. Obviously, given the events referenced on Return Of The Ranters there’s an element of selective nostalgia on his part, but even during their dormant era Normil Hawaiians never suited up for the straight world (Smith lives in Wales and runsa circus company), and Empires Into Sand’s creation has been greatly informed by its members’ ad hoc, autonomous approach. These underground sages remain very admirable.

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