HMPH! is a band that’s done its homework. They’ve listened to their early Don Caballero, nailed down the effects pedal gymnastics, and spent their time in practice spaces ironing out the kinks in start-stop riffs. They’ve honed a sound characterized by patterned guitar riffs and driving basslines, and feel well at home in the modern math rock scene. With their self-titled second full-length album, HMPH!, this is more apparent than ever.
Listening to HMPH! in one sitting is an eventful experience. While the album from the starting track, “40 Tubesteaks,” has the strange, fractured harmonic ideas employed by bands like Slint, the album slowly mutates; its minor, dark-sounding themes accented by bass guitar eventually get replaced by high-fret dissonance, an airiness that is both strange and, ultimately, welcome. The album feels like it’s stretching its arms out over both the old and the new of the scene, pulling bits and pieces from all over the proverbial must-listens.
In fact, “40 Tubesteaks” really feels like a template for what the album is going to deliver. It has the syncopated, grungy riffage of early Don Caballero, pre-American Don, with the three-piece moving through part after part of slowly morphing time signatures. Yet, what’s interesting about “40 Tubesteaks” is not the technicality, which is on display but muted, nor is it the production, which sometimes feels far-away or not-so-punchy, but how well the band, beneath all of that, allows the song to play with and adhere to expectations. One of the longer songs on the album, it shows us that, yes, HMPH! is willing to experiment and throw around weird ideas to see what sticks, but when you get tired of the aesthetic gamble, you’ll get your breakdown. You’ll get your twinkly riff. You’ll get your loose jazz solo. In many bands, following formulae like this can make an album feel repetitive or old-hat, but here, many listeners will feel nostalgic and find the give-and-take of experimentation charming and earnest.
This is not to say that the album doesn’t have its share of technicality or fretboard acrobatics. “Chredder” feels like it could be an early Tera Melos b-side, complete with stutter effects, jittery starts and stops, and genre-spanning clean sections. On songs like these, the bass carries the sound to new places, offering dynamic counterpoint both rhythmically and melodically. To see how effective this can be, one need not look any further than the interlude portion early on in “3 Chords,” where the bass and drums feed off of each other in a weirdo-jazz call and response, the walking bass line propelling the song forward into oblivion.
By “Boxblaster,” HMPH! really hits its stride. The band loosens up. While the strategy is much the same—twisting permutations of riffs, syncopated drum and bass grooves—they seem to allow themselves to fully indulge. The songs from “Boxblaster” onward feel more distinct, more incubated. To put it more bluntly, they feel more like HMPH!, or at least what I imagine HMPH! wants to be: a band that’s having fun making sprawling progressive music. I think this is perhaps most apparent on “The Upside,” where the drums finally indulge a little, providing a nice, unleashed sound to the mix. The bass moves and grooves around tense, dissonant chords soaked in reverb. The song, while more abstract, feels more purposeful, like it has more kinetic energy than previous tracks.
By the end, HMPH! seems have been overtaken by impulse like this, and the album is better for it. They do whatever they want, and that less-limited artistic expression creates moments of real musical ingenuity. Closer “Cyclus” has some of the nicest, most unexpected tonal changes and rhythmic ideas. It has booming fuzz, quirky guitar work, doomy dissonance. It has momentum and melody. It builds up, gains speed, twists and turns around itself. It dances and mutates and then, in the washy spring reverb that coats the whole album, the band meets up, and they stop on a dime. Album over. It’s a moment that shows us that HMPH! has more in the tank. Ending on a note as final as that, with seemingly so much that could still be said, makes the album feel like it deserves a second go-through, like HMPH! belongs on your next release radar.
Does HMPH! have the glossiest production of 2019? Is it the most mathy, metal, out-of-your mind album you’ll listen to this year? No. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t delight. HMPH! is an album that flourishes in its diversity and sustains a consistent dark, grungy mood. It’s acrobatic and angular at heart, but has flashes of thrash and doom that are rewarding, complex, and dynamic. Much in the vein of early Battles or Giraffes? Giraffes!, HMPH!’s second album feels sprawling, odyessean, temperamental. The band constantly iterates on what it’s good at and rarely ventures into territory that it knows it can’t or doesn’t want to tackle. It indulges in fun, dynamic motifs reminiscent of early math rock, and the occasional dissonance of it feels welcome at a time when many math rock bands have opted for more conventionally melodic songwriting. Though the album at times feels like it’s over-stating its point, listeners who stick around will be rewarded with dynamic tracks that’ll make you want to turn your speakers up and thrash around, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Author: A. Tucker