[16 January 2014]
Although it’s plain to see that this is a side project for Neil Halstead, a likely one-off release with friends Nick Holton (of the band Coley Park) and Mark Van Hoen (of Locust), it’s hard to not be a little taken aback. After all, the past two decades have witnessed Halstead blossom into a fine folk songwriter, shifting from Slowdive to Mojave 3 to his past two solo albums with their eerie echoes of Nick Drake. As his craft developed, the shoegaze sheen of his early work was stripped away, revealing the structure of the songs underneath. Hence 2012’s Palindrome Hunches was an impressively hushed affair, mostly just Neil and his guitar, with flights of piano and violin ducking in and out.
So given that trajectory, this release, a return to the Slowdive years, comes as a bit of a surprise. And sadly, this album is no Souvlaki. Though it sonically coincides with the same dense soundscapes that made Halstead’s work from two decades ago so compelling, Stars Are Our Home is more like an album-length jam session than anything else, full of fun ideas and textures, but not a set of songs that formally coheres into an album. It goes without saying, of course, that there are brilliant moments here. Take the chorus of “This Is How I Feel”, which riffs on a Beach Boys-style Wall of Sound vibe. There’s also the following track, “Got Your Love”, which, replete with handclaps, keyboard figures, and fuzz, comes off as the unlikely but awesome remix of a forgotten Mojave 3 song.
And although Halstead is the figurehead here, I’d be remiss not to emphasize how much of this project belongs to Mark Van Hoen. Van Hoen, who has been a figure in the world of ambient music for the better part of two decades, brings an intriguing edge to this record. Although Slowdive and early Mojave 3 albums often featured textures not too different from Van Hoen’s work (indeed, Van Hoen helped produce several Mojave 3 tunes), Van Hoen brings a distinct flavor to the proceedings here with his interest in trip-hop and more electronica. For instance, there’s the electronic tremor that pulses through the middle of “Time in the Machine”, sounding like an engine whirring up to speed. Listen also to that fragmented keyboard background in “I’m Back”, as Halstead’s voice drifts hypnotically in and out of the mix.
If the album has one major flaw, it’s the length. Running over an hour, many of the album’s 12 songs sail past the five-minute mark. The effect isn’t necessarily one of indulgence, but the length certainly speaks to a lack of clarity. While the spirit of exploration here runs strong—a few friends having a good time picking up the pieces of the ’90s space rock revival—this idea in practice often sounds like a lot of serious noodling (like the nearly minute and a half of plunky keyboard tones tacked to the end of “Oh Crust”). Ultimately, Black Hearted Brother is a rewarding experiment for Halstead, Van Hoen, and Holton; even though they’re more or less throwing sounds at the wall and seeing what sticks, what we’re left with is pretty impressive.