Album Review: Sleep In – Under Earth

[Self-released; 2010]

It’s hard to accuse Hamish Duncan of Sleep In of being anything but generous to his fans. In this year alone he’s released two albums under his own name, re-released two older ones with added content and new artwork and also managed to hook up with his friend Leon Conolly and release an album called Octogasm under the alias Lazy Dre. After all this he’s spoiling us if anything with yet another album. I don’t mean to sound annoyed at this fact, but as much as I love hearing new work from Duncan, it’s starting to feel like I have too much on my hands. Even though last album Carnival was released more than a few months ago, I still feel like I’m drawing off the dark energy it seemed to emit.

But then you have to consider the fact that Hamish Duncan seems to represent a new breed of artists that have been on the rise in the past few years. With no real external pressure from a money laundering pop-tart producing record label, access to numerous kinds of music software, an immeasurable amount free time and a whole host of inspiration via the internet, musicians of all sorts are able to live out their fantasies. With the likes of Bandcamp, Spotify and Soundcloud becoming more and more popular, these artists have the opportunity to create an album and present it as that instead of the old fashioned way where one odd song appeared on a band’s Myspace page. Thus individuals like Duncan or any other group of friends are able to be their own record label via these websites, manage what they give out to their audience, charge them whatever they want (if anything) and reap the benefits of it all (if anything).

For his new album Under Earth Duncan seems to have continued down the dimly lit hallway that Carnival seemed to loiter in. But it’s not totally accurate to call this a continuation of Carnival as the feel of this album is one much more electric, full of a dark kind of static energy, strangely more akin to Pyramid at times, albeit a lot clearer and concise. By simply looking at a track like “Peace” you see how much better Duncan has got with recording; clearer sounds, more effective bouts of thrashing electric guitar and drums that could rally crowds.

But this crisp sound could be down to the fact that Under Earth is a strangely quiet album. Even at its loudest moments, the songs feel unusually hushed like they’ve been leveled down a notch or two. First track “Right House” flickers with scattered noises to begin with like the fluorescent lights all coming on gradually in a huge warehouse as it fades in the reversed melody. Everything in the song just seems to emerge gradually, like the clicking beats and the looping yelps, displaying how seamless he has made not just his sampling process, but his songs in general. Even though next track “Never Enough” is noticeably more upbeat and lively, it still seems draped in this brooding atmosphere which lingers for the course of the album, giving the album an unsettling consistency. The greatest benefit this action has is that it seems to put the music on a more level playing field with Duncan’s hushed and whispering voice, meaning it’s less prone to getting buried in the mix. Nonetheless his voice can still be hard to decipher and this many albums in, the limits of his voice are beginning to show.

Another consistency Duncan has, though, is his knack for pleasing and clever lyrics (which are thankfully given to the listener via pdf booklet). The album seems to narrate a break up that Duncan will do anything to mend even though he’s aware it’s not a totally healthy situation for him. He begins almost melancholy in his regret (“We used to be so close/ And I now I don’t know where you live” on “Right House”) which turns to a bitterness which could be read in numerous ways (“I don’t know what you’ve been told but it’s true”) which morphs into a sort of detached despair (“I am a simple man/ I don’t require much…If you want me come get me/ I’m yours”). The added booklet does help if you’re trying to decode meaning behind Duncan’s hushed words but when you realize the content of the songs is obviously personal, you can’t blame him for not wanting to shout about it. When he does need a cathartic release, though, he has his music as he vents his annoyance and frustration via spiky, wandering guitar solos and blasts of noise, such as the earlier mentioned thick and chugging guitar line on “Peace.”

All this taken on board, though, the album still struggles to recreate that same kind of satisfying effect that the best bits that Carnival had. Under Earth mirrors is predecessor but not always in the best ways: seven minute track “In the Water With Me” struggles to make any real or lasting effect as it tries to connect content together much like “Spared”; once again Duncan has tried his hand at ambience (who could blame him after his brilliant offerings last time) but likes of “See” is more strange and forgettable than anything else and “Saw” merely trickles out a simple acoustic riff (rather akin to the funeral march) with light washes of indefinable noise.

I suppose the fact I don’t find Under Earth as impressionable as Carnival is because it kind of feels like another dose of medicine i’ve already had. Duncan himself feels Under Earth is a bit experimental but that doesn’t really come across – at least not in a shocking way. At the very least, though, amidst the sadly forgettable content here, there are songs that are worth seeking out. With its prickly riff, twitching backing track and vicious guitar, “Pins” might very well take the acclaim of being the most textured Sleep In track ever. “Never Enough” and “It’s True” offer strangely funky guitar riffs that make them pretty much instantly memorable when you run the album through back to back. And even the less show stealing numbers are repeatable: “Right House” for its creepy and apt vibe that sets you up kind of perfectly for the course of the album; “Masterstaff,” despite being too short, is well executed number that comes off almost natural and easy for Duncan. And this in turn makes me realize how much of shame it is that Duncan hasn’t quite nailed full album consistency yet because if he delivered one full of these interesting and exciting songs then I’d probably lose my shit. And if you consider his rate of output in this past year and a half, I’d hope that success is not too long off.