Meet Halo Blind, a UK-based progressive band who formerly bore the name Parade and who released the delightful album ‘The parade’ back in 2009. With only Gavin Griffiths and Chris Johnson left from the original line up it is clear that a number of changes have taken place in the band aside from the name change, but despite this the quality of the music, the production and the artwork have has remained consistently high and, if anything, ‘occupying forces’ is a work that surpasses the fragile beauty of ‘the fabric’.
The first thought that strikes when you place ‘Occupying forces’ in the player is that it is a curiously British album. Following in the footsteps of acts like Radiohead and Strangelove, both acts that split their attentions between the guitar driven indie rock that dominated the UK music scene in the early 90s and the progressive bands of the seventies, Halo Blind are not afraid to deploy guitars set to stun upon occasion, but time and again the emphasis is upon building intricate webs of sound that glisten and gleam in the early morning light. Opening track, ‘better?’ beckons the listener into the album with a haunting piano line before the song slowly devolves into a skeletal beat and rhythmic bass line underpinning a vocal line that recalls the carefully woven harmonies of ‘Creep’-era Radiohead. Building up slowly, the band adding layer after layer, the concluding riffs are the pay off the listener has been waiting for, a solid wall of guitar unleashed by Chris alongside newcomers Andy Knights and Chris Farrell that seethes and roils with real fury. Taking the opposite approach that might be expected from its name, ‘revolutionary soul’, opens quietly before taking flight as a mid-paced indie rocker in the mould of Strangelove as the band veer between subtle, dreamy verses and heroic choruses and it’s hard not to be drawn back to that brief time when the likes of the Longpigs, Radiohead and Placebo all regularly marched through the UK charts. Indeed, by the time you hit the beautiful, hypnotic ‘mirage’ you realise with a jolt that no-one really makes music like this anymore and that Halo Blind now stand alone, facing both back to their chain of inspiration and forward with their own unique spin upon their influences, tinkering with a vein of progressive rock that’s been left long untouched in favour of the more metallic approach favoured by Porcupine Tree and their ilk. With its restrained musical approach allowing the stunning vocals of Chris and Andy to float above the mix, ‘Mirage’ takes the music box approach of vintage genesis and adds in touches of ‘paranoid android’ for good measure only to suddenly segue into the subtle yet menacing minor key mystery of ‘Saturday’, which simmers rather than blazes, never fully igniting, but instead building a sense of tension across its five minutes that only abates when the piano-led beauty of ‘torrential’ emerges from the echoing synth that closes the track. The subtle, emotive ‘Downpour’ similarly emerges from its predecessor and these tracks together form the heart of the first side of the record, a shimmering, gossamer-fine heart that is awash with beauty and wonder and which leaves you drifting in a haze of bittersweet nostalgia with its rich sense of invention and melody.
A brief interlude with a jazzy swing, ‘the end of the first side’ leads the listener in short order to ‘brain dog’, a percussive slab of paranoia that sounds like the inner voice of Roger Waters filtered through the music of an alternate Nine Inch nails influenced by ‘Hot Space’ rather than ‘news of the world’-era Queen. ‘False alarm’ calms down the genre exploration and heads into pure ‘hail to the thief’ territory with its jazzy drums, spidery guitar work, exceptional bass runs and Thom Yorke-aping vocal. Of all the tracks here it is both ‘false alarm’ and its sparse, utterly beautiful, piano-led follow-up ‘the puppet’, that, perhaps, cleave too close to the band’s influences, and whilst both tracks have much to recommend them, they offer less than the more original offerings that are found elsewhere upon the record. That said, the band have set their own bar ludicrously high, and it is indicative, perhaps, that the most damning criticism of the record that can be made is that two of the songs lean too heavily upon the influences of one of the most inventive bands the 1990s had to offer. ‘Smithereens’ sees the band heading out into the wilderness of their own imagination once more, indulging in a rhythmic, folky approach that sits somewhere between The Smiths, Radiohead and American ‘slow-core’ act Low although it builds up quite a head of steam by its epic, atmospheric conclusion. ‘Analogue’ opts for robotic percussion and shimmering synth lines, a reminder that in this post ‘Kid A’ world bands are liable to head into the most incongruous of territories if the mood so takes them. Heading back into environs more commonly inhabited by rock bands, ‘coma’ is a dreamy shuffle through the titular state, the vocals floating upon a haze of guitar and hypnotic percussion, before ‘control’ closes the album with the briefest of codas, the album’s last rays of warmth slipping away as the disc spins to a halt.
With ‘Occupying forces’ Halo Blind build upon the work laid down by Parade and, in most cases, surpass that debut album with ease. Throughout the musicianship and song-writing is first class, the band adept at building a rich, multi-textured atmosphere whilst keeping the melodies both memorable and accessible. At its strongest ‘Occupying forces’ sees Halo Blind marking out their own unique niche in the British progressive rock scene and if, on occasion, the band find themselves held rather too much in thrall to that which has passed before, overall they mark themselves out as wide-eyed dreamers, tethered to the past but always with one eye on the horizon, seeking to carve a new path into the unknown. In short, ‘occupying forces’ is a beautiful album that draws upon a variety of influences but which never loses its own sense of identity, and the elegance of the music does much to soothe away the tensions of the modern world and draw the listener away from the raging madness of modernity. For those that have admired the slow evolution of Anathema; for those that value the work of Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree and, in truth, for those who love the beauty of music made for the purposes of art rather than commerce,Halo Blind are essential listening and ‘occupying forces’ highlights an exceptional potential which, if given the chance to flourish, could see the band becoming one of the major progressive forces in the UK in the coming years.