[13 December 2013]
Hidden Masters is a Scottish three-piece that makes a much busier racket than you might expect for such a small lineup. The group’s jittery, restless, tempo-shifting, prog-influenced music owes as much to David Bowie as it does to Yes, but also incorporates plenty of 1960s jangle-rock influences, barbershop quartet harmonies, and even a dose of heavy music that isn’t quite “metal” but comes close. Their latest full-length, Of This and Other Worlds, is a swirling mass of guitar picking, adept harmonies, multi-part compositions, and abrupt shifts of gear, all held together with song titles like “See You in the Dark” and “She Broke the Clock of the Long Now”. It doesn’t always work, but often it does, and its successes are consistently surprising and rewarding.
Rewarding, that is, if you like this sort of thing. Fans of straight-ahead riff-rock or percussion-heavy dance music are likely to be bored beyond reason. The rest of us, though, can revel in the audacious verve of opening track “She Broke the Clock of the Long now”, which spices its jangly guitar-pop with ominous down-tempo prog interludes, or the even catchier follow-up “Into the Night Sky”, which not only throws around time signatures from one moment to the next but is also blessed with one of the catchiest choruses on the album. Abrupt tempo shifts, another band hallmark, manage to lend cohesion to the tune rather than fragment it. Some trick! And oh yes, there’s a nifty doom-guitar interlude, apparently included just for the hell of it, because why not?
Sometimes, when music like this jitters from one section to next, the listener gets the feeling that the band just doesn’t know what to do with a groove once they’ve landed in it. This rarely happens here; Hidden Masters gives the impression of having so many ideas, it’s all they can do to contain themselves for a time before bubbling into the next segue.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the six-minute opus “Last Days of the Sun”, which opens with heavily harmonized and reverbed vocals before jumping into a nugget of 1960s-era pop. By this time, though, the listener is savvy to the band’s tricks and waiting for the sidestep into something entirely unrelated. This duly happens around the 2:35 mark, when studio effects and a subtle tempo shift carry the listener into a bridge section built around guitar arpeggios and harmony vocals similar to the opening bars of the song. This is suddenly interrupted by a guitar thrash that sounds an awful lot like the opening of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” (hey, swipe from the best) before yet another shift delivers the listener into some other space entirely—more sweet vocals, bits of keyboards floating above a galloping tempo for the final minute or so. And… we’re done. Somehow, it all works.
Nor is that everything on the album, not by a long shot. The vocals on “Nobody Knows That We’re Here” suggest Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, even as the twanging guitar carries a faintly Middle Eastern inflection—at least until the twinkly bridge section. Oh, and the lyrics are fun too. Batshit crazy, as one might expect, but fun.
Of This and Other Worlds is crammed with such unexpected sideways leaps, but the record is bewilderingly successful in spite of or because of them (you choose). It’s an astonishingly assured debut, one that’s built upon a solid foundation of musicianship. Listeners looking for a playful but tight deconstruction of the past 40 years of popular music: look no further.