I want to take a moment to talk about “Wires in the Walls,” from the San Diego-by-way-of-Michigan trio The North Atlantic. It is concept-driven indie post-punk from the mid-2000’s that should be reveled in and passed down by generations of music enthusiasts. The solitary release from a band that burned out before anyone had even realized they arrived, it should be held tightly, treasured and displayed as one of the ultimate examples of fleeting brilliance. However, as we approach the 10 year anniversary of its release, it appears to have simply become lost in the wind.
I am almost always somewhat disappointed whenever I open an article with a title like “The Top 10 Albums You’ve Never Heard Of!” Inevitably I end up staring at titles like Slint’s “Spiderland” or Kyuss’ “Sky Valley.” Don’t get me wrong, “Spiderland” is an important album that is very relevant to modern post-rock interests, but it also feels like it has served a recent purpose as the album to which a large number of people point retrospectively in order to show you how cool their taste in music is (although I half suspect that a good number of those people had never heard of Slint themselves until 5 years ago). “Sky Valley” is one of my favorite albums ever, but you can find pretty much every Kyuss song on YouTube, and also…you know…Queens of the Stone Age aren’t exactly a “fringe” band, so at this point, Josh Homme’s earlier group probably isn’t what you would call an unknown quantity.
This concern is what really got me thinking about The North Atlantic on a wider scale than just my own consistent desire to blast them through my iPod. In the eight years since I first found “Wires in the Walls,” I have quite literally never heard another person make mention of them. Considering the thorough weightiness of this album, to me, that amounts to a true feat of undue obscurity.
I stumbled across The North Atlantic in a fairly random and admittedly shameful fashion. In 2007, I was in the grips of a serious opiate addiction. In other words, I was broke. It was early December and I needed to find my girlfriend some Christmas gifts on the cheap. At one point while browsing through Amazon, I typed in At The Drive In. The handy bar that offers you recommendations based upon your current browsing suggested The Blood Brothers (check!), The Mars Volta (check!), Modest Mouse (check!), The Fall of Troy (check!) and The North Atlantic (who?). I clicked on that last name, listened to a few 30-second samples, saw that used copies were going for a single penny, and…sold! The CD arrived and, being the thorough fuck-up that I was at that point in my life, I opened it and gave it a test spin. I was absolutely floored. Within 2 weeks, said girlfriend had broken up with me, but not before I had burned myself a copy of “Wires in the Walls,” and the rest is history. For me, at least.
There is a sense of urgency to this record that reminds one of albums like “Second Stage Turbine Blade,” “In/Casino/Out,” “Domestica” and “Lonesome Crowded West” – all works from early in their respective bands’ career arcs, and all works that are canonical enough at this point that they don’t need to be prefaced by any of those bands’ names. Although, strange as it feels to say as someone who holds At The Drive In and Cursive very close to the heart, The North Atlantic sounds much more refined on their debut than either of those artists did at that point in their discography. What all of these releases have in common is that they feel like the result of bands that were busting at the seams with ideas and desperate to get them out. “Wires in the Walls” shares the same sensibility – like it was created by people who knew they had a masterpiece on their hands and were killing themselves to get it to your ears before whatever window of brilliance they were working within slammed shut. What may be an even stronger testament to this album is that it was not created through such circumstance at all. The North Atlantic’s backstory has never really been fully fleshed out because, frankly, they were never relevant on a wide enough scale to warrant a demand for such information, so this is the best I could cobble together.
A cursory Google search serves only to magnify the true depths of The North Atlantic’s obscurity. The first things you will notice are plenty of images and information relating to a band called “North Atlantic Oscillation,” an electronic and prog-based group from Scotland. Pertaining to The North Atlantic are three measly items: two music videos and, to further demonstrate how off-the-radar this band is, a MySpace page with 3,500 views that hasn’t been updated since 2008. However, the pertinent information contained therein, sparse as it may be, is helpful in shedding some light on WHY hardly anyone in 2016 knows who the hell The North Atlantic are. The first paragraph of the bio is stunning when you consider how mature and fully realized “Wires in the Walls” is:
While it is true that “life happens” to plenty of small-time indie bands – college, work, families, etc. – it is very rare that any of them ever release an album like THIS; considering their age and the general landscape of “bands formed in high school,” “Wires in the Walls” is the kind of thing for which the phrase “diamond in the rough” was coined.
The bio continues on to reveal that The North Atlantic are comprised of two brothers – singer/guitarist Jason Hendrix and drummer Cullen Hendrix – and bassist Jason Richards. “Wires in the Walls” was first recorded in 2003 by the band themselves, after they had moved to San Diego from Kalamazoo and acquired enough of a local following to get a few gigs opening for bands on national tours. Shortly after the release, Jason Hendrix moved back to the Midwest to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, and that was that. “Wires in the Walls” was eventually re-released in 2006 by a label called We Put Out Records, and it is there that the bio comes to an abrupt close. There is a song on the MySpace page entitled “Father in the Sky” from a 2008 compilation album entitled Black Box Studios Comp, but that is The North Atlantic’s last activity to date. It seems as if these guys put themselves out there, made a massive statement, no one listened, and they just went back to their Clark Kent lives as if they hadn’t written and released something that should be considered a definitive post-punk album.
Some deeper digging reveals a few more things about the band, as well as the members’ lives since The North Atlantic disbanded. They released an album prior to “Wires in the Walls,” entitled “Buried Under Tundra,” but if it is actually available to acquire somewhere out there I haven’t discovered it yet. Cullen Hendrix left the band in 2007 to finish his dissertation and pursue a career of scholarship, while Richards and Hendrix both landed in Chicago, where they started new bands. All of them are even more obscure than the North Atlantic, however that does not mean they are without merit, and they certainly cover a diverse range. Big Science interweaves synth and guitars to create a sound that the band refers to as “sad disco.” An Unfortunate Woman plays a loud, crashing brand of post-hardcore (relating to when that term referred to bands like Botch rather than modern post-hardcore such as Falling In Reverse), while Loose Drugs is entirely unscripted improv rock, reminiscent of Don Caballero at their absolute weirdest. All three bands have albums available on Band Camp. Richards and Cullen Hendrix have continued their pursuit of scholarship, while Jason Hendrix has worked as a touring guitar tech for a number of major national bands. The brothers Hendrix are also currently back together In Denver working on a new musical project, while Richards is finishing an MFA at Cal Arts.
Back to those two videos I mentioned earlier. They are for the album’s intended “singles,” “Scientist Girl” and “Bottom of This Town.” Listening to these songs, one thing is clearly illustrated: for all intents and purposes, The North Atlantic should have been huge. “Scientist Girl” exudes all the infectious cleverness and charm of “Pinkerton”-era Weezer focused through a post-punk lens, dropping instantly-memorable lyrical passages like “Congratulations, girl, you’ve made a cuckold of me/You’re playing Helen of Troy at the beach, but I ain’t crossing the sea,” and the bridge refrain “I’d rather/Listen to The Clash/All night/Than be with you.” The sing-a-long chorus, complete with ultra-catchy backing vocals, should have ignited fans of alternative music across the country. The song is accessible enough for a wide audience, but smart enough to appeal to the indie rock community. “Bottom of This Town,” a much different kind of song in terms of texture and tone, brilliantly pre-figures the synth-driven alternative that has dominated modern rock airwaves for the past several years, but again, you get the sense that serious music fans would have embraced it along with the general public, considering its passively cool approach and the genuine sense of warmth-amidst-dystopia that it conveys.
All that having been said, these two songs will not prepare you for the overall sound of “Wires in the Walls.” In fact, once you have listened through the album in total it becomes clear that they are only a small part of a much more layered and frenetic narrative. This is an album that freely moves across influences and musical regions, and ties them together effortlessly. You can hear shards of D.C.’s angular post-hardcore, glimpse the searing vitriol of New York City, the melodic chaos of Austin post-punk, the catchy melancholy of the Midwest, and the dissonant sensibilities of the Pacific Northwest. It’s all here, and it all makes sense. This may seem like an out-of-place comparison, but they possess the same kind of ability that I have always admired in “Soup”-era Blind Melon to cover a lot of ideas in a short time frame, and strike a balance between free-wheeling looseness and fully-realized cohesiveness. While “Wires in the Walls” may be the sum of a dozen different influences, it draws from these sources only to inform its own distinct identity and never feels derivative. It is an album with a character all its own and I have no doubt that, had they been provided the opportunity to blossom, we would be talking today about the “North Atlantic sound.”
“Wires in the Walls” kicks off with “The Lotus Eaters,” a quick burst of swaggering bravado and barely-contained energy. A rhythmic, surging chorus of hand claps leads into Hendrix sneering “Hey! Hey sister, which face you got on now? Whore or lover?,” immediately setting the tone for a lyrically compelling album. The bombast of this short opener gives over nicely to the next three tracks. “Drunk Under Electrics” is finely-tuned, focused post-punk beginning with catchy mid-tempo verses which precede the explosive riffing that brings the song to its close. Mimicking the intoxication suggested by its title, it teeters on the brink of chaos before finally falling apart, leaving behind only the boozy-sounding refrain of “you’re older, then you’re colder.” “Swallows Fire” wastes no time bursting through the haze of “Drunk Under Electrics”’ finale with a rollicking drumline and chaotic, palm-muted strumming before leading into the interplay of frantic verse and anthemic chorus. The ending is full of vitriol, as Hendrix belts out “You be the bullet! I’ll be the gun!” This all leads into the playful, head-bobbing opening of “The Man Who Saved Your Ass,” with its attention-grabbing opening lines “When I was your age I’d get the fuck down/Sex the girls all soft and round/Planes spitting fire from their mouths/At cities miles in the ground/And these buildings/A metal heaven built around us/And this city/That you never did care for that much.” This is the first major appearance of “Wires in the Walls”’ recurring theme, which revolves around a pre-apocalyptic near-future in which all things organic and electronic seem to be slowly fusing and industry plays surrogate for a faltering God, as we follow a narrator who is constantly pondering if this is really the kind of world we had dreamed of. The inspired up-tempo turns into a contemplative outro that slows methodically until the final, ringing chord, which effectively brings the album’s first Act to a close with the none-too-comforting foreshadowing of Hendrix’s final lines: “The city of the future/That we crawl through screaming drunk/Always building something over/What it was that came before.”
The progression of tracks in the middle third perhaps most encapsulates how diverse a record “Wires in the Walls” is. It begins with the aforementioned “Scientist Girl” and “Bottom of This Town,” which leads into “Street Sweepers,” with its tinges of “Acrobatic Tenement” during the intro and finger-tapped guitar-work that gives way to what is essentially post-punk perfection; jagged riffing, manic drumming and the kind of emotional cacophony that can only be attained through just the right combination of rage and melancholy. This gives way to the dark dirge of “Atmosphere vs. The Dogs of Dawn,” an epic that sees the band equally at its heaviest, most contemplative and most explosive. Finally, there is the quiet jangle of “Cities,” which brings the album’s themes to the forefront with lines like “There are cameras humming in your walls/The streets wear holes in shoes/And God wears holes in people.”
The final, two-song third Act begins with the companion piece to “Swallows Fire,” entitled “Swallows Air,” which start furiously before breaking down into a “Dramamine”-inspired verse which builds strongly on the dystopian concepts that have been laid out previously, featuring show-stopping lyrical passages like “There are parks in the city/Where men fuck other men/These are the places you’ll never see/These are the places I’ve been…/…There are cities so big/That you can’t see the sky/Concrete swallows the air/Buildings eat up your sight.” Before you can get comfortable with the pacing and tone it quickly shifts into an up-tempo drum and bass-propelled section that is complemented by a discordant solo of guitar noise that leads nicely into the song’s final refrains , fueled by angry, rhythmic down-strokes moving in step with the snare. All of this is just a precursor, though, to the final song on “Wires in the Walls,” which serves as the showpiece for someone like myself who is seeking to extol The North Atlantic’s many strengths.
“The Ministry of Helicopters” begins simply with Hendrix riffing and repeating the line “I’m a pilot with the ministry/Who, who, who, who, who’s gonna save me?” Brother Cullen’s drums and Richards’ bassline kick in, and everything just locks in there and never lets go – the perfect interplay between all three members, led by Hendrix’s from-the-hip guitarwork, favoring palm-muted strumming and harmonics that feel somehow fast-and-loose but also exactingly precise in the same moment. They push on all cylinders, then at the two-minute mark truly reach a new level with an instrumental break powered by the album’s best riff, which should have torn the roofs off of clubs for years. I can see images in my head of concert-goers anticipating this moment, then losing their minds once it finally arrives, probably as an encore, as “Ministry” just has that set-closing kind of vibe. Then, as quickly as it comes the moment passes, giving way to the album’s epic ending segment, which expertly ties together all the dystopian imagery and sonic textures. The uncertainty about our future is laid out over music that you can almost HEAR tearing its own guts out, while Hendrix grows increasingly frantic, crying out “You were singing in your throat/A song about a man/Who stood a hundred miles tall/In a plane over continents/Content with the knowledge of it all/That with the push of a button/The future was assured.” One thing you have to say about the guys in The North Atlantic – they left it all out on the floor to finish this album in memorable fashion. This is one of those songs that you can’t possibly turn up loud enough. Simply put, it is probably one of the five best post-punk songs I’ve heard this century, and it troubles me to envision a future in which increasingly fewer people know anything about it.
It’s not as if The North Atlantic is the only great band to suffer a life of obscurity. Aside from the undoubtedly-countless groups that I have never heard of myself, there are others that come to mind. Faraquet, Saetia, In Pieces, and The Postman Syndrome are just a few that deserve their own nods. But Faraquet at least got to release their spectacular “The View From This Tower” on Dischord, so certainly more people have heard of them than they have The North Atlantic. Saetia had their importance memorialized, albeit posthumously, with “A Retrospective,” which compiled all of their work onto one disc for people to appreciate, and their members also went on to other bands like Hot Cross. In Pieces toiled in obscurity but managed to release two very, very good records, the “How To Build a Human Heart” EP that was released on a split with the band Craig, and “Learning to Accept Silence,” as well as one fantastic final album, “Lions Write History.” Despite their relative lack of visibility within the scene, their split resulted in the spawning of both the popular straight-edge hardcore band With Honor and the synth-y alternative outfit Bear Hands, which now has a presence in modern rock radio rotation. The Postman Syndrome is probably the closest in terms of obscurity to The North Atlantic, but their lone release, “Terraforming,” sometimes feels a bit overwritten and doesn’t hold up quite as well in 2015 as it did in 2004 (though I implore you: look up “Hedgehog’s Dilemma (Parts II and III)” on YouTube and TRY to tell me that those guys didn’t have the potential for greatness in their blood). There is no band that occurs to me outside of The North Atlantic that has the combination of one shoulda-been genre-defining album and also an absolute irrelevance to the vast majority of people in 2016. For a band that I have never heard another person mention, who hasn’t been memorialized on Facebook somewhere, whose only traces online are a couple of videos on YouTube that hardly anyone has watched and a MySpace page that hasn’t been updated in eight years, The North Atlantic’s “Wires in the Walls” is a fantastic, dare I say transcendent piece of post-punk brilliance. It’s a Master’s class on what this kind of music can be, except no one enrolled. That this class was to be taught by a trio in their early-20’s only makes it that much more compelling.
POSTSCRIPT: After initially writing this article, I managed to put myself in contact with all three members of The North Atlantic. I explained my desire to publish the article, and they were helpful in tying up some loose ends and correcting any biographical mistakes that I had made. We also discussed how “Wires in the Walls” had disappeared from Spotify some time during the last year. It was during these talks that the band decided they would upload the full album onto YouTube themselves, as there was otherwise no full stream to accompany the article. It is Arctic Drones’ great pleasure to present to you “Wires in the Walls” for your consideration. I would also like to thank Jason Richards, Cullen Hendrix and Jason Hendrix for collaborating with me during this process, and for creating this music in the first place. There are currently around 30 used copies on Amazon starting at $0.01, and 12 new starting at $1.88. I bought this album for a penny back in 2007, and it has rewarded me beyond my wildest expectations. You owe yourself the same experience. Do yourself a favor and check out “Wires in the Walls.”