Band: Hands Like Houses
Title: Ground Dweller
Released: March 13th 2012
Label: Rise Records
Producer: Cameron Mizell
Sounds like: The Receiving of Sirens on synthetic drugs, a Chango Studios production
A couple of songs into this album and it feels like your ears are attached to the end of a funnel and at the other end, six band members, all very competent at their respective roles, are throwing myriad ideas into the top, leaving a warring, confused and overworked series of tones trickling into your ears. It feels as though the band had so many great ideas that they didn’t want to leave any out and the producer, rather than acting as a filter for those ideas, allowed them all to pass through. There are times when these ideas conform to create some brilliant moments, but you have to be prepared to work to find them.
At their best, Hand Like Houses bring The Receiving End of Sirens to mind, with multiple guitar parts battling away under various intertwined vocal melodies. ‘A Clown and His Pipe’ is a fine example: a non-rigid song structure punctuated by the most interesting melodies on the album. Lyrically this album is excellent as well, moving away from the usual nonsensical troubled relationship garbage that perpetuates the scene to more interesting topics such as the desire to explore the world rather than being tied to our places of birth. It’s when cliché moments are allowed to creep in that things don’t go so well though; the synth-led breakdown in ‘This Aint No Place for Animals’ is so out of place it must have been wedged in with a crowbar and I can’t help but shake my head whenever the obligatory We’re a Rise Records Band Stick Cheesy Breakdown Here moments hit me.
Vocally this album is a little hit and miss. The lead vocalist has a fantastic voice and an impressive range, but as with most singers when they’re constantly straining for the top notes, the tone up there can become grating on the ears. The singer has a favourite lick that he likes to use at the end of key phrases and when this gets used on every song on the album, it almost becomes a game as you anticipate where it will happen on each passing track. Add to this the feeling that melodies from the early parts of the album are cropping up in the latter parts and things start to feel a little recycled as the album draws to a close. These flaws are merely teething problems though, and you expect that from a debut album. That said, the song writing is very clever, the songs get stronger with each listen and being overburdened with ideas is preferable to being steeped in monotony. All of these issues are countenanced with repeated listens and by simply adjusting your expectations. However, one issue simply cannot be ignored: The Production.
I could write a whole thesis on my struggles with Cameron Mizell’s production but to save you the boredom of reading it and to save any veins from violently throbbing in my head, let me just say it nearly ruins the album. The main aim at Chango studios appears to be transforming the natural tones of instrumentation into synthetic replicas and as a musician, I cannot for the life of me fathom why you would want to do that. There are so many electronics and drum replacement samples streaming in through the speakers at any one time that I have to strain to even hear a guitar tone and for a band that appears to be using three guitars, that’s criminal. It doesn’t take long to determine that the main reason Ground Dweller sounds like a jumbled mess of random ideas is that the production is making it very difficult to pick apart the individual instruments. Quite simply – this isn’t how instruments sound!
To be clear, I don’t blame the producer for these problems. Cameron Mizell and Chango studios have their signature sound and bands got there with full knowledge of what will happen. It’s hardly a mystery when every album that filters through there ends up sounding exactly the same when it comes out the other end. The band has to take responsibility for its decisions and unfortunately this one hasn’t paid off. While the band, for now, are sticking to their guns, claiming that this is the sound that they wanted on the album, I can’t help but feel that in ten years’ time when they reflect on it, they will massively regret opting for a production fad as the basis for their album’s presentation.
The most frustrating part of Ground Dweller is the wasted potential. This is a very competent band with a lot of great ideas, but had I not insisted on playing the album repeatedly just to get my money’s worth, I’d likely never have known this due to the intrusive, off-putting production. I can’t help but wonder how amazing this album could have been if some key choices were better placed. To conclude, I present Exhibit A for just how excellent this band can sound with human beings and genuine instruments, rather than being cloned by machines and samples.