Album Review: Hands Like Houses - 'Ground Dweller'

15 March 2012 | 12:30 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

An intelligent, impressive and unique breath of fresh air.

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With a truly unique sound blending a variety of genres, Ground Dweller is one of the most innovative, diverse and exciting alternative-rock releases in a long time.

After finally being picked up by Rise Records in late 2011, this two-and-a-half year culmination of perfecting and patience was released on March 13. Recorded on two separate trips to Chango Studios in Orlando, Florida with Cameron Mizell (Woe, Is Me, Sleeping With Sirens, Dream On, Dreamer, I See Stars), Ground Dweller is an extensive musical journey (as much of a cliché as it sounds) unrivalled in the post-hardcore genre this year – and some years prior too.

Lead single and opening track Antarctica is appropriately placed, perhaps the most complete and concise summation of what the listener is about to embark on: periods of ambience, chaotic rhythm sections, ambitious yet expertly executed lead lines, polished mixing and production, and the catchy, dynamic vocals of Trenton Todd Woodley. The combination of synthetic key sounds, bells and orchestral arrangements cleverly layered amongst the guitars, bass and drums are a defining quality of the sound Hands Like Houses have created, noticeable throughout Antarctica and coming to the fore in tracks like This Ain’t No Place For Animals – with its eerie harp intro – and Spineless Crow – one of the most ambitious tracks on the album containing lots of open space, a fierce string section and a soft, acoustic outro; it would feel at home on Chiodos’ acclaimed Bone Palace Ballet. Adding to the diversity, A Clown And His Pipe even features a Spanish-guitar-filled bridge. 

While many albums (particularly in the post-hardcore genre) tend to fall away in the middle sections of the record, Ground Dweller delivers in spades. Starving To Death In The Belly Of A Whale removes any sense of security created by the ending of the previous track with a sudden, explosive beginning, reaffirming with a bridge full of gang vocals. Whale, and the aforementioned This Ain’t No Place For Animals, while collectively impressive, are the perfect showcase of lead guitarist Matty Cooper’s talent. While the centrepiece in some tracks with fast movement up and down the frets, to his credit Cooper holds back where necessary on others to create that sense of balance (Don’t Look Now, I’m Being Followed. Act Normal and One Hundred).

The Definition Of Not Leaving,
while different, is certainly a highlight. Entirely programmed and performed by keyboardist Jamal Sabet and Woodley, Not Leaving is a wall of pianos, electronic drums, reverbs and layered vocals. The ambient nature of the track generates a sense of calm and Woodley’s passionate vocals leave their strongest impression on the listener with the haunting lines of “Stay... don’t go”.

The vocals and lyrics are an undoubted highlight; firstly, the fact that Woodley avoids cliché and elects not to scream is refreshing enough, and secondly, his artistry of imagery in his lyrics (peaking in Lion Skin) gives his storytelling the greater depth required to truly connect with the listener. With references to childhood classics Where The Wild Things Are, Peter Pan, Pinocchio and the recent film Inception in both titles and lyrics, Woodley presents a modern yet nostalgic mode of storytelling that he executes with exquisite flow, rhythm and his own Brendon-Urie-esque delivery full of walking vocal lines and vibratos exploring various aspects of human relationships. Moreover, there’s the fact he is complemented by the guest vocals from Jonny Craig, Tyler Carter and Matty Mullins on Lion Skin and the heavy, breakdown-filled Watchmaker rather than falling into the trap of being outshone by his high-profile guests.

The album is appropriately ended with the love-themed epic The Sower, a song that was initially written as an acoustic track before being transformed for the album. While still energetic, the half-time chorus injects a feeling of calmness to the conclusion; almost passing in slow-motion amidst an intelligent and careful layering of all the prior-mentioned dimensions to the Hands Like Houses sound.

Drawing inspiration from experimental bands such as Circa Survive, The Receiving End of Sirens and Thrice, Hands Like Houses have created something unique which finds a middle-ground between the Panic! At The Disco and Chiodos in terms of quality and creativity. Having earned themselves an extensive international following through touring relentlessly without an official release, Ground Dweller became one of the most anticipated albums of 2012 and it lives up to the hype. With Sabet’s electronic composition, haunting melodies and variety of sounds that fit and flow – unlike some “synth-core” garbage that gets produced these days – Ground Dweller proves that keyboards and programming have a place in modern alternative music without sounding forced and cheesy. Matty Parkitny’s aggressive drumming and the rhythm section of Alexander Pearson (guitar) and Joel Tyrrell (bass) firmly hold together the exuberant lead-lines of Cooper and set a platform for Woodley to shine. Ground Dweller is a perfect example of a band breaking the mould of the heavy and post-hardcore genres ridden with cliché today, while at the same time making a statement on the current quality of Australian music. An early frontrunner for the best debut release this year.

1. Antarctica
2. Don’t Look Now, I’m Being Followed. Act Normal
3. This Ain’t No Place For Animals
4. Spineless Crow
5. Starving To Death In The Belly Of A Whale
6. A Clown And His Pipe
7. The Definition Of Not Leaving
8. Lion Skin (feat. Jonny Craig and Tyler Carter)
9. One Hundred
10. Watchmaker (feat. Matty Mullins)
11. The Sower