Experiencing singer-songwriter melancholy from the ears of someone hearing from a different frequency.
There is a wonderful story to be told whether you enjoy the music of Hēran Soun or not. Soun was born with severe loss of hearing which soon deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t hear at all. After many operations and years of speech therapy, Hēran Soun (James Freeman-Turner) was able to hear and find his voice again. This brave and determined early experience with sound is admittedly harrowing but it also gives a unique relationship to music that ‘Undeaf’ absolutely showcases.
Experimental art-rock with indie singer-songwriter melancholy is the best way to describe ‘Undeaf’ in a single sentence but the album is steeped in so much more. The first few seconds of the opening track ‘I Offer’ confirms you are on a unique ride when vocal murmurs and offbeat time signatures spill out at you. Even the chord and note structures have an unusual melodic speed and twist to them. It isn’t avant-garde – everything feels like a highly emotional and dramatic singer-songwriter track. The pianos, guitars, drums and synths are blaring at you in the dramatic climax but the way how sound is projected around the speakers is different. Sound attacks you and then slips away in whooshes. ‘A Picture of A Woman’ is another fine example as Hēran Soun’s voice switches between synergies of other instruments. Sometimes its upfront and in your face, other moments it is hiding like a hazy ethereal wisp. It is so cleverly done – as if your ears are tuning in and out of different parts of the song subtly.
This clever sound manipulation wouldn’t matter much if the songs themselves weren’t also superbly put together. ‘The Same Battles (So Close)’ evokes Radiohead’s miserable ballads of worry and melancholy perfectly. There is a section where the string and Soun’s voice just wavers like a cry for a good fifteen seconds as grief and resentment are pouring out of the speakers. It is the single moment of audio clarity in the track – again showing how this unique relationship to sound can enhance an already quality track. ‘Bad&Worse’ is a pensive percussion and string piece where the drums are front and centre and the strings hide behind the march. Nothing is produced quite how you expect it to be and it is refreshing to hear on every track.
‘A Lover Waits’ is fantastic as a quirky indie radio hit in waiting. The drum machines and dreamy vocals and guitars play at odds with each other – slowly swaying out of time with each other only to find themselves all in sync but the end beautifully. ‘When You Wanted’ sounds like the song is being played in different rooms. The vocals and drums are up close but the guitars are a few halls away whilst the piano and strings seem to be next door. It makes an already empathic ballad feel more whimsical and wintery. ‘In My Mouth’ then mixes up something Bjork would be proud of with layers of mouth noises and sounds that sound like noises you’d make for speech therapy training. I can only guess but it sounds like the song is playing with the idea of formative speech to convey feelings – whilst a very catch synth riff unfolds at the same time.
Although I did get some Douglas Dare vibes at times, Hēran Soun may be difficult to place and tracks like ‘Let Me Go’ make that quite difficult. It is a freeform bluesy guitar and vocal piece that starts off gentle and rouses to a scream. It reminded me a little of the Shinto ritual Misogi – where someone screams at you to purify you. That would work perfectly for my own context as ‘Back Words’ then contains an insane five-minute reversal of drum loops, piano ruffles and vocals as if we are travelling back in time. The song is absolutely being played straight but the whole track is designed to sound like you are going backwards. Again, clever but with melodic and emotional gravitas – as the song gets increasingly frenzied like a chamber-pop version of shoegaze.
After the pointed chamber pop of ‘Barricade’, the album closes with the twelve-minute epic ‘Who Are You’. It is the albums magnum opus in many ways although it is less cinematic and abstract that some of the earlier tracks. The drums, pianos, strings and synths swap in and out using all the techniques I’ve mentioned above. Now they are also joined by a synth voice that sounds angelic but clearly synthetic. Slowly over the course of the track, Hēran Soun joins and leads these synthetic voices – perhaps his mind voice – and discovers his own at the same time. It is beautifully poetic if you know his story and that adds to the weight of the end of the album.
Frankly, there is nothing else out there that tackles music, its production and the way how the distance and speed of sound are conveyed, in this way. It sounds like an insight into how a partially deaf person may zone into certain frequencies or instruments and that completely changes the dynamic of a song. Both clever and emotive, thankfully the music itself is more than capable of standing up to the unique production. It doesn’t go for pure riffs but it doesn’t have to. Instead, Hēran Soun plays with your expectations of how songs should be structured and developed and creates quirky but memorable songs that way instead. A genuinely mesmerising debut.
Recommended track: A Lover Waits
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