One of the freshest discoveries for me this year, NeuHuman is an act which sounds a bit like a paradox – their music can very comfortably be summed up in one very precise word, and that word is “vague”. Ironic? Perhaps. Lazy criticism? I’ll do my best to elaborate and dismiss such suspicions.
I used the word “act” above, in spite of its slightly pejorative sense, because up until very recently, NeuHuman was more of a “project” than a “band”. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Al Azar founded the project in 2008, on his own, and has allowed it to slowly grow into what it is today – a six-piece band based in Austin, Texas. However, the sound on “How To Stop Time”, their sophomore release, is still very much reminiscent of a one-man-project, which is not surprising given that Al Azar is credited with playing most of the instruments in the liner notes. It’s also not a bad thing; in fact, I would go so far as to say it’s probably one of the most endearing aspects about the album, bringing a certain vulnerability, the fragile brilliance of an ‘underdog’ sort of band. This is the kind of sound you root for in your hidden heart, hoping it will develop and bloom in years to come, the kind you’re very proud to have stumbled upon and are hesitant to share with anyone just yet, in case they won’t see it ‘right’.
RELEASE DATE: 29 September 2014 LABEL: Self-released
The vagueness I mentioned is a large part of this effect as well, along with a good deal of luck. What I mean is that in all of their press releases, in all the descriptions of the album, the band seems very keen on associating their name with instantly recognizable titans of the genres NeuHuman is blending – Portishead, Radiohead, Gorillaz, even The Beach Boys. While this may (or may not) be a good idea in marketing terms, the music itself does an amazing job of not sounding very much like any of those influences in particular. It’s such a complete blend of all of those elements, resulting in such an honest and sweet sound, that it ends up almost unwittingly establishing its own specific vibe. NeuHuman sounds a lot less like Portishead and a lot more like Cocteau Twins, more Red House Painters than Radiohead, but most importantly, more like themselves than anyone else.
The music itself is mesmerizing, inciting a remarkable feeling of calm. The mood it sets is very ethereal, of an almost tactile effect, like patches of shade on your skin cast by moving clouds on a sunny day. There are chilling moments from time to time, as the wind picks up, on tracks such as ‘Black Stone’ or ‘The Smell of Gasoline’, but the overall feeling is very pleasant and natural. It’s in the mood that Al Azar’s brilliant combination of electronica and organic, folky elements shines brightest. The magnificently named Steed Corulla provides some truly hypnotic vocals, marked by a feeling of innocence, of naivety and benevolence which I’ve only recently heard on Floex’s “Zorya”, and so the musical concoction becomes hearty and heartfelt. Quite simply, on a mood level, the record glows.
However, from this point on it becomes difficult to write about the album, because like in so many things, its blessings can also be thought of as curses. I’m thinking of the production, which on the one hand contributes greatly to the laid back mood, while on the other hand it manages to frustrate with what I can only call a constant feeling of imprecision. Truth be told, most of the record sounds quite hazy, lo-fi, with an odd mix. The volume and definition of each instrument are low, held back, almost as if the intention is to keep everything hushed, gingerly, as though not to bother the listener. This ‘walking on eggshells’ feeling might be very comforting for some, and indeed it is welcome at times, but just as often I find it a bit annoying, maybe even patronizing. Turning your system louder isn’t really helpful – it’s just the way the album is mixed. This prudent sort of production also makes it difficult to hone in on the quality of the composition; sometimes it happens that the weird, syncopated mesh between beats and notes sounds refreshing and challenging, as though the rhythmic patterns are supposed to be somehow lopsided and not quite on the mark. Other times, it just feels a little lazy, or as I said, “vague”, especially in the first few tracks.
Overall, I would say that “How To Stop Time” is a record that requires a certain mood to get under your skin, a certain mellowness in the listener’s approach, which it then proceeds to amplify and expand in wonderful ways. However, if you’re in a very technical, clockwork sort of mind-set, the record might very well grind your gears quite a lot.