In a Post-Kid A world, English Experimental Rock music has, for about sixteen years, failed to properly push its sound further—what upends the premise of guitar-driven music more than “Everything In Its Right Place”; what surprises listeners who expect Rock to be an expression of energy and vitality more than “Treefingers”? Since then, “innovative” Rock music hasn’t pushed its sonic boundaries, and even increasingly varied instrumentations and arrangements have only expanded upon Radiohead’s key insight: that genre can and should be manipulated freely. So when I first heard people calling 31hours “the next Radiohead” I was intensely interested—sure, they’re an Oxford-based five-piece; there are similarities from the outset, but how could anyone live up to that ridiculously high standard? The truth is, they don’t, but on their debut album Tell Me What You See, 31hours introduce their brilliantly diverse, yet one-of-a-kind take on Progressive Art Rock—a sound remarkable enough that it deserves to be completely detached from the ultimately diminishing comparison to Radiohead.
To get to the heart of the album’s breakthrough ideas, we’ll first turn our eye to the album’s 11th track, “Trees”, pretty close to the album’s end. It’s one of the album’s best tracks, not because it epitomizes the sound of the album, but exactly because it does not—the song begins with an infectious Latin guitar riff complemented nicely by an anxious rhythm jumping between a tambourine and an inexplicable woodblock; synth flourishes enter to accentuate the end of each phrase. Then, when vocals come in for the first verse, the song concentrates on a four-four beat; the guitar attempts to control itself as Jo Griffin and Rebekah Whittingham sing in harmony about an animal moving through the autumnal forest. These two sections, one eccentric, one controlled, play on each other until the coda, in which a martial beat underpins guitar arpeggios and a sung description of the physical sensation of being in a forest. This escalates and shifts until a Latin-sounding guitar solo; then the drums move into an odd triplet pattern that mimics a samba rhythm—until the song’s conclusion with a sample of forest sounds. So structurally, the song completely undermines our expectations—call and response verses, one long coda with a solo; these things don’t happen in prototypical Rock music. Stylistically, the song is all over the place—Latin rhythms and melodies move into traditional Rock guitar (and sometimes Funky) rhythms. Not to mention it’s a ridiculously catchy song, excellently produced, perfectly executed.
The album has several tracks like this one—that is to say, tracks that completely surprise the listener not just with their technical songwriting prowess, but also their almost non sequitur style. The polyrhythmic 5/8 Prog workout and album single “Royal Box” apparently was conceived by the band as a project in making the most stilted, broken rhythmic relationships as danceable as possible—and it works. The self-sampling guitar solo sees this idea to its natural end, and the song collapses around it. “Hospice” brazenly but effectively uses a simple drum machine to accent an off-kilter, deranged dance, complete with pitch-shifted vocal madness in the verses. The transitional songs “Invisible Threads” and “Satellite” show off the bands skill with synth manipulation and production and act as world-building, mood-setting vignettes—very interesting explorations of what this band can do. “Idyll” kind of follows through with the sounds only incipient on those transitional tracks—it’s a beautiful, touching electronic ballad, complete with clear glitch influence, which leads directly into the harrowing closer “Golden Fruit,” a kind of combination of all their techniques at once, also adding a certain jazzy element to the mix.
Tell Me What You See’s only significant issues present themselves on songs where the band seems to play it safe. The opening title track and “Under the Influence” stick to relatively conventional song structures and keys—that said, it’s hard to criticize either, because they’re both still powerful songs in their own right. “Foreign”’s bluesy stasis probably lasts too long with too exploration—though its relentless vocal sampling and constantly bending guitars keep listeners on their toes. So it’s difficult to call any track on this album truly lackluster; some songs just take a more conservative approach.
Together, these songs make Tell Me What You See a consistently compelling, constantly magical listen, an album that has grown on me with each listen and persistently stunned my musical sense, and album that still surprises me even when I know what’s on it. It has a few faults, but it appears to be an infinitely promising debut from a band to keep one’s eye on over the next few years—they will inevitably be making a significant mark on the future of English Rock.