It’s been four long, arduous years since Just Mustard’s last album but that, strangely, hasn’t seemed as long as it reads just written down like that. 2018’s Wednesday made some ripples but wasn’t actively sought out by a lot of people until the release of a 12 inch in 2019 comprising of two tracks, ‘Frank’ and ‘October’. The Dundalk five-piece crystalised their ethereal, bedroom-friendly energy into something with enough of a hook to get some prominent airplay. They were also championed at that point by King of the Stadium Goth Grandads, Robert Smith, which gave them a broader visibility.
Reports from recent Just Mustard shows focused on the new material and gave the impression that the new songs were a massive lurch in a new direction. I’m pleased to report that, if you’re already a fan, Heart Under will contain all the components you already like about the band with a bit more of an occasional driven edge.
Katie Ball (vocals), David Noonan (guitar/vocals), Mete Kalyon (guitar), Rob Clarke (bass), and Shane Maguire (drums) have found themselves on a new label but continue to be involved with their own production with the additional bonus of being mixed by David Wrench, whose previous collaborators include Frank Ocean and Let’s Eat Grandma.
Comparisons and influence-spotting are always going to be central tenets of critiquing music, but it can also become a lazy way to think about new things. That said, the comparisons to My Bloody Valentine aren’t likely go away and just name-dropping other bands of that era like Curve, Cocteau Twins and the like doesn’t disguise the fact that the layered textures, the reversed guitars squashed through several reverb units and the dreamlike soundscapes all leave comparisons unavoidable. That’s not to say no other influences are present. The new stuff, in particular, is dashed through with darker shades of eighties sci-fi and a spicy bit of menace.
Opener ‘23’ is a blistering highlight. E-bowed guitar sounds play less of a lead line and more of an environmental cushion for the skipping drumbeat and pulsing synth that coat the songs first two minutes. An extremely squelching, low frequency pulse joins in for parts of the second half. Throughout the familiar quiet/loud dynamics, the consistent element is just the sheer atmospheric density.
Latest single ‘Still’ conveys that eighties sci-fi vibe with a rumbling bassline that wouldn’t be out of place in a video game based on an Arnie film. The transition from verse to chorus to hook is a thing of beauty that’ll have you roaring along ‘So bitter/I am yours/In this river/I am yours’.
Lead single ‘I Am You’ feeds off the notion of a hypnotic repetition of elements (like the vocals) while other elements gradually raise, fade out and buzz around. The repetition works with what feels like a very introspective, almost self-destructive lexicon to create something that does exuberate pure emotion, but it does grind on repeated listens.
I love nothing more than not being certain what instrument made what noise so ‘Seed’ is right up my cul-de-sac. A big bag of delay effects, strutting rhythm and panoramic…noises. The last version of the chorus is almost an intrusive shock, like someone else’s nightmare bleeding into yours.
‘Blue Chalk’ takes two minutes before bass drum kicks in and, when it does, it’s at twice the tempo you expect. The vocals are, at times, buried in the mix with pulsing percussion and synths going front and centre in an unsettlingly effective juxtaposition.
Some of the songs feel like they’ve gone through some iterations to get to where the band want them and ‘Early’ has so much going on in its radio- friendly run time that it occasionally feels like the band are exercising some forced restraint during the noisier sections.
‘Sore’ revolves around a two-note bass riff being manipulated with volume or expression pedals and guitars that manage to sound like distressed whales in the rhythm of a creaking 18th century whaleboat. If it feels like I’m reaching for abstract descriptions rather than conventional guitar tone comparisons, that’s because I am and, quite frankly, the thing I love about this band is that they are forcing me to do this by making such a gloriously indefinable racket. Released as a single in April, ‘Mirrors’ has a danceable tempo and blends the voices of Ball and Noonan singing about someone else looking back out of the mirror in such a way that manages to be comforting rather than creepy.
‘In Shade’ also has a danceable thrust but the contrast between the moody, menacing verses and the soaring chorus make this one I’d love to see live and would argue that it deserves to be a single. Either way, this is an absolute joy of a song and will be the retro theme to a movie sometime around 2050.
Closing track ‘Rivers’ deserves to be named after larger bodies of water. A floating mesh of wailing guitars over an insistent bassline that serves as a musical sunset to a perfect sonic day.
There’s no telling what music is around the corner in the remainder of 2022 but it’s likely that none of it will be any better than this. Heart Under plays like a concept album or one larger opus rather than a collection of songs and, yet, each song has enough of its own character, enough of its own detectable composition to show that the album is not only a vibrant format, but once every 15, 20 years, a band like Just Mustard can perfect it.
Heart Under is out 27th May via Partisan Records