Hank Tree - The Big North (Album Review)

We all want somewhere to belong. Feeling like a valued part of a family, community, or the larger world, is necessary for good mental health. Yet, security is scarce in a world in constant flux. The cultural, socio-political, and environmental aspects of our environment greatly influence the running dialogue of our inner world, but what if our inner world is at the mercy of an inhospitable external one? On their debut album, Glaswegian avant-folkers Hank Tree ruminate on the importance of belonging, economic security, and geography on their gorgeously alternative debut album "The Big North".

The twelve sensitive songs on the album touch on themes of escape, nature, and the spiritual and social repercussions of living in a society that puts industrial interests before community. The group's highly literate brand of folk rock brings to mind the focused work of Gastr del sol, with primitive acoustic guitar, gossamer vocals, and restrained percussion experimenting with form. Novelesque in its recurring themes and the unhurried space afforded to the listener, these songs look for a gentle way to deal with the uncertainties of modern life.   

"Arriving In The Big North" introduces the collection with juxtaposing guitar tones, finely picked acoustic and distorted electric. We meet our protagonist travelling by train to the north with change afoot ("we can't go back, the choice has been made"). The winsome melody, subdued by measured vocals, gives the more reflective lyrics an air of detached irony. Such is the case across this highly stylized concept album. "Jokes", in true Kierkegaard fashion, explores how comedy can be the one fail-safe of the human condition. There are three instrumental tracks on "The Big North", the first of which, "Another Accident", is propelled by chugging drums, restive fingerpicking, and colourful electric guitar. "Company Town" talks of the imprisonment of the wage worker ("I turn to see the factory is waiting, and it's taunting me again"). "Fiestas Patrias" was released as a single from the album, and it is representative of the rich lyrics and bounteous melodies found throughout the twelve tracks. The intellectualism of "Sweet Saltpeter" operates on back-beat driven contemplative folk reminiscent of The Books, which merges with surprising blasts of distortion and descriptive poetry ("the colourless mix of rocks"). The cryptic lyrics of "Eighteen Pence" could be interpreted as a lament on capitalistic greed and worker's rights ("This is not a question of coins but of principles"). This solemn folk song introduces an airy brass section to elevate it to something bittersweet and poignant, defiant yet light. 

Elsewhere, The beguiling instrumental "Back To Work" matches indiscernible field recordings with a primitive acoustic guitar. "Haber - Bosch Process" further highlights Hank Tree's proclivity for the esoteric. Hushed and rhythmic vocals and an exotic guitar riff move around an examination of tension that never finds release, much like the highly pressurized method of creating ammonia gas which the song is named after. The bright acoustic guitar work of "More Departures" mirrors the stubbornness of staying in an economically ruined town. When everyone else has left and industry has collapsed, our narrator remains to enjoy the breeze and the night, which he knows the departed townsfolk will eventually miss. Herein we find this album's true soul: the use of spirituality as a salve for economic hardships. Finally, the instrumental "Nothing", drifts pleasurably around squeaking metal foley, warm acoustic guitar, and spontaneous drums. This closing track paints a picture of an arid wasteland, a northern town where work has dried up, and the only life which remains is that of our protagonist. 

"The Big North" is not a cheery listen. Though built on a foundation of sweet acoustic guitars and mellifluous melody, it draws from folk traditions of hefty social commentary. However, what's most surprising about this album is how accessible it is. The poetic lyrics and lofty ideas are carried in a vehicle of alternative folk rock that doesn't take long to lodge itself into your consciousness. Good luck trying to get it out again.