It has not been an easy journey for Half Moon Run after the release of their fantastic debut album Dark Eyes in 2012. The brutal remarks expressed during interviews by the incredibly talented band members suggested the search for creativity, inspiration and substance was quite a chore in the transition from their first album. Half Moon Run did not give fans like myself much confidence in the result of their sophomore album. Weathered by the toughness of living life on the road and the acknowledgment that this career would consequently take over their heart and soul, each band member felt the burden on their shoulders.
In a recent interview with DIY Magazine, multi-instrumentalist Dylan Phillips admitted: “It feels strange to say, but it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the pressure involved in writing the bulk of the other songs that came together over the past year”. He continues to state “I think the real challenge for ‘Sun Leads Me On’ was in finding our voice again after having essentially lost touch – both individually and collectively – on the road”.
Therefore, this experience wasn’t simply the creation of a new album, it was the journey to discover and solidify a valiant identity. With brute force and baby steps, the album came into being. And my oh my, what a record it is. I can’t speak for everyone, but the slog they went through was very much worthwhile and the internal pressure they placed on themselves paid off, leaving me flabbergasted. These Montreal musicians have come a long way since barely knowing each other with the release of Dark Eyes back in 2012. ‘Strangers With Spontaneity’ was the leading inspiration for their first album. They would have to dig a lot deeper for this one.
In terms of structure, expansion was needed with the introduction of band member number four, turning Half Moon Run into a quartet. Expansion of sound also took place leading to experimentation with newer instruments, most notably analog synths, electric bass and newer options for both acoustic and electronic guitars. Despite this progression, the mastered sound achieved with Dark Eyes has survived, offering the most precisely cut harmonies you will hear, skilful rhythms of complexity made simple and instrumentals that melt your heart.
I’m not normally one to make quick assumptions and drastic judgments of complete over the top admiration, but I can say with confidence that Sun Lead Me On is my favourite album this year. There I said it. With one month to go left of 2015, I’m sure it will secure this position. I made this opinion after the first listen, and each time I return it only cements that thought in my mind. If that is not a good enough reason to keep reading this article, then I don’t know what is. I give all things a second chance to redeem themselves and impress me, just as I give the impressive things a chance to disappoint.
Normally I just write about the ‘stand out’ tracks of the album, to give the reader and listener a good feel and understanding of the flow, however I believe in this instance that format of writing would be an insult to Half Moon Run. It would be like being given a full course roast dinner and leaving the stuffing, potatoes and carrots to go cold… I don’t care if you’re full, you’re going to be eating it all up! After that weird and yummy analogy let’s just get to it before your stomach starts rumbling.
Sun Leads Me On was written in either Montreal (through the day and the night) or on a surfing trip to California. 13 songs have been compiled together, starting with “Warmest Regards”. A delightful little flute starter kicks off what is the lightest track of the LP. There are no familiar dark undertones to be heard whatsoever, implying this track is great example of an offshoot to newer sounds present on the rest of the album. Surprisingly, this song is comparable to what I can only say is 1970s art rock, coming straight out of the psychedelia of the 60s, with a hint of Sgt. Peppers’. It also offers harmonies slightly different to the usual Fleet Foxes style. If anything, it’s similar to 10cc, no, not Dreadlock Holiday, that would be quite an odd turn of events if Half Moon Run went on that much of a tangent.
Dylan Phillips claims “there are many songs on this record born of old ideas”. “I Can’t Figure Out What’s Going On” certainly is one of them. Drawing you back into the dark abyss of their earlier sound, this heart-warming, yet uplifting track is my favourite off their new album. In my opinion, when strings are righty thrown into an indie set-up, that is my definition of heaven. These Canadian rockers do precisely this as the use of strings is beautifully infused with the choral harmonies which work hand in hand.
“Consider Yourself” lucky for this cool cat track. Bring on the synths, especially if they can work so well alongside this chest bounding beat and racey piano introduction! But when you think the band have given all they have to offer, in comes the electric guitar which joins the gang of instruments. This is truly one intense listen cementing it as one of the hardest hitting tracks off the album. However, even though a lot of emotion engulfs you, have no fear, because the classic harmonies will calm you.
“Hands In The Garden” presents a soft touch after the manic nature of the previous rock song. Consisting of a Coldplay piano-esque edge to it, you are guided through this lovely diffy with a full of life matured Half Moon Run soul. It finishes with a strong harmonic unison of voices, offering a glimpse of the once vibrant folk-country inclusion. Nevertheless, it is tracks like “Turn Your Love” which suggests signs of a newer refined identity emerging.
This is because it combines the classic harmonies throughout with colourful synth and electronic guitar strumming. These pulsating electronic sounds resemble something you would find in an 60s sci-fi soundtrack. But what’s most interesting about this track is the refrain of “I don’t feel the strongest singing my own songs / And I used to, baby”, instilling the foreboding doubt surrounding the creation phase of Sun Leads Me On.
Quickened strumming acts as the basis of this “Narrow Margins”. Similar to the South American guitar style of the Roncoco or a Spanish pacey guitar play, this is one to remember. Very much like their old Indie-folk tracks. However, it is title-track “Sun Lead Me On” which cements itself as being one of the most inspirational tracks from their new album. This slow ballad gifts the listener with Americana vocals of yesteryears coming to life in a campfire stylised track.
“It Works Itself Out” is a sombre tune resembling the melancholy nature and undercurrents of their first album track “Nerve”. Vocal boundaries are pushed aside, as falsetto heights are sang beautifully well. It then surprisingly concludes with a dark and twisted, yet incredibly impressive piano solo. “Everybody Wants” marks the return of sci-fi sounds heard earlier on in the album, followed by the emergence of an acoustic guitar and solo vocals. One would settle for the flow of this track present in the introduction only to be lifted with harmonies and electronic atmospheric sounds which washes all over you.
However, what surprised me most about this track is how the beat comes in with quickened skilful pace, which then builds and builds, and yet, you still remain as calm as possible. This might have to do with the harmony blanket of supporting band members facilitating a wonderful church choir sound. The short piano interlude of “Throes” makes its way into the collection of tracks now. Half Moon Run’s willingness to experiment welcomes the introduction of this neo-classical composition perfectly, fitting so well alongside the others.
“Devil May Care” is the definition of a journeyman’s track. The introduction of the harmonica only reinforces this statement. The most obscure track off the album was a warranted nice surprise dabbling in Bluegrass and North American folk, proving that a minimalist approach to indie music is still met with praise. The first single from their sophomore album “Trust” concludes the album. Despite coming late, this song is potentially the best sign of progression in the right direction for these Montreal rockers.
According to Phillips, this up-beat synth heavy track is a “departure from what you might normally expect from Half Moon Run. It’s the last song we wrote and recorded in the whole process, and it was put together with a lot of fragmented ideas and somewhat of a chaotic energy. It feels a little bit like starting from the end, and leaves plenty of room to work back towards the beginning. The album goes many places, and this is just one of them”.
Well there you have it. My best attempt to describe a musical work of art on paper. No matter how much praise I may give, the only way to truly understand what I have just experienced as a fan is to give it a listen yourself. Enjoy. Half Moon Run’s Sun Lead Me On is out now via Indica Records, under license to Glassnote Entertainment, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Finn Brownbill