Welsh heavy metal trio Hark specialize in constantly shifting tempos and rhythms, guttural but not Cookie Monster-ish vocals, pounding percussion, and of course plenty of rough-edged guitar riffage. Debut album Crystalline delivers the goods in its 10 tightly wound compositions ranging from the whispery and brief “Xtal” to epic, 11-minute album closer “Clear Light Of…” Hark isn’t out to reinvent the heavy metal songbook, but their enthusiasm and verve take them far, and make them a rewarding listen for fans of heavy music looking for something a trifle more challenging than by-the-numbers efforts of many of their peers.
Opener “Palendromeda” is a snappy little number featuring some rewarding guitar noodling amidst its constantly shifting rhythms, while follow-up tune “Hounded By Callous Decree” slows the tempo and piles on the layers of guitar ownage. Bass player Nikolai Ribnikov wields his instrument skillfully, both mirroring the guitar lines while sometimes playing in counterpoint to them, adding a degree of interest. The snaky wah-wah of Jimbob Isaac’s guitar is a nice touch too and a recurring element throughout the album.
“Sins on Sleeves”, at nearly eight minutes, is the first indication that Hark is seeking to expand its efforts beyond the punchy, get-in-get-out confines of a typical heavy metal song. Over a rolling guitar line and steady, percussive thumping, guitarist/vocalist Isaac howls his feelings of, well, I’m not sure exactly, but he doesn’t sound happy. The slowly unwinding tempo shift over the last couple of minutes is a nice touch too.
In fact, the vocals are the weakest link on this album. While avoiding the death-metal growl, Isaac remains a one-note vocalist, and his raw-throated howl-at-the-moon approach fails to reflect the sonic (and emotional) variety expressed by the rest of the band, particularly in its longer compositions. A short, punchy tune can afford to have a singer who never varies from one emotional pitch, but for a more complex song like this one or the equally ambitious “Breathe and Run”, more range and complexity would be useful. (That means you don’t have to scream all the time, dude.)
That said, the instrumentation picks up much of the slack, with plenty of crushing riffs and short, snappy lead breaks to keep everything lively and interesting. Tempos vary from the frantic to the sludgy, sometimes within the same song. “Mythopeia” benefits from an edgy rhythm that will meet with most head-bangers’ approval, while “All Wretch No Vomit” (great title alert!) is dirge-like in the best possible way. That said, there is a certain sameness to the album as a whole, with little in the back half to differentiate the tunes from the start.
Until, that is, the last two tracks. “Xtal” is 96 seconds of reverbed guitar noodling that creates a sonic menu quite different from any other song here, and leads into the 11-minute closer “Clear light Of…” This tune is as much prog as metal, in its structure if not its instrumentation, and does a pretty good job of justifying its length. As mentioned earlier, the vocals are the weak link, but get past that and there’s plenty of satisfying guitar wankery to be had.
Hark is a solid band by all accounts, it’s just that some of the parts are more solid than others. Listeners seeking a summertime soundtrack to get their heads banging could do worse than this.