There is much to admire about “Kintsugi”, the new album from Sussex four-piece hAND. It is unashamedly progressive and difficult, whilst possessing subtlety and an attempt at emotional depth sometimes missing from progressive rock. And there lies my regular problem with the genre – I like my music earthy, or if it is cerebral, then at least have enough melody take take me along with it. hAND do at least try to engage your heart, but they are hindered by the vocals of Kat Ward, whose bloodless voice floats above all the musical dexterity and skill like a detached, disembodied presence. It’s a shame because with a gutsier singer I would be raving about this album.
There is something to marvel at on nearly every track here; opener ‘Level One’ leaps out at you with fluid, techy riffs and that digital sheen and bleeping computer game synth riffs you associate with Dragonforce. There is, unsurprisingly, a concept at work here about the nature of relationships, Ward pleading “if only I could skip to the end”, but I haven’t yet fully grasped the whole drift of it.
Next up, ‘Windlestraw’ has a ferocious riff across mournful and soft vocals, which sit almost in opposition and then features a weird bass breakdown not unlike Primus shorn of the silliness. hAND utilise a very rhythmic attack with limited melodies, and at times it’s much harsher than you expect from progressive rock. And forget about a chorus – hAND don’t really don’t do those.
There are melodies on ‘Anthem (Ode to the Giddy)’, which is like a suite with various movements despite being less than four minutes long. It has several strong melodies, but they are almost tossed away as if the band find them simply too easy. Restless minds are at work and play here.
That earlier harshness comes to the fore on ‘Volcanic Panic’, which, strangely, kicks off like Senser with jagged riff and double kick drums before settling into a soothing vocal over restless churning and the spitting guitars of Kieran Johnstone and Ward. It then goes into overdrive at the close and makes like Megadeth with its speed metal dexterity.
So ‘Nebula’ wrong foots you by coming in on funky, almost high life guitars and the rhythm section popping and fizzing, the keys adding a merry layer of fuzz underneath. It’s odd but rather fabulous. The song then becomes downbeat and a little anguished, again leaving you disorientated.
The diversity continues as ‘Amazing Burn’ starts as a cool piano ballad then briefly comes on all perky with choppy Alex Lifeson guitars before returning to the solo piano. Then the keys and percussion begin to crash hard as the song becomes more agitated and moody in a way Radiohead fans will be familiar with.
I could go on about every track, apart from the slightly disappointing ‘Hide You’; in fact, the eight-minute ‘Through The Big Door, Up The Stairs And Out’ deserves a whole review to itself, such is its ambition, but really I think you’ll have got the idea by now.
This is a fabulously rich, intelligent, very heavy and brilliantly played set of songs by musicians I am in awe of, but I cannot love it when the vocalist’s style short-changes the rest of the performances. You may feel differently; I know a lot of successful prog bands feature vocalists who are fairly sexless and pure sounding, but I personally find it alienating and cold. That doesn’t change my opinion about the music though, which is exciting and worthy of much attention and acclaim.