The Hollywood North Files – [CA]se Study #006 : Half Moon Run : Salt : YUL

After experiencing a roller coaster of emotions during their emergence, Half Moon Run has landed where their heart was when they started this journey: with both feet down in the bottom of a dark indie river. For their fourth studio album, Vancouver’s Dylan Phillips and Conner Molander, along with Ottawa’s Devon Portielji drew inspiration from rough demos recorded up to ten years ago on their portable Tascam 2-track recorder. Their process was also fueled by world events which bound the human race together in a common need for hope. In anticipation of their newest LP, the band posted to their Instagram, declaring: “For fans of the band, get ready–this record is THAT record.” Which begs the question, what do they mean by “fans of the band”? Are they referring to their day-one followers? The ones who were drawn to the dark-folk aesthetic of their debut record, “Dark Eyes”? The answer to that question can only be found by listening carefully to their 2023 full-length genre-bender, “Salt”.

In order to tap into their musical beginnings, the Canadian trio listened back to recordings of their old performances and writing sessions—some of them up to ten years old—recorded during their first European tour in 2012. HMR teamed up with producer Connor Seidel, who hosted them at his off-grid studio outside of Montreal, where they could escape the hustle and grind of the city and marinate on their previous works. The trio sifted “Salt” from a decade’s worth of lyrical and musical tidbits and wove the elements into a tapestry LP. In reference to this process, Molander stated: “While making this record, it felt as if we were boiling down a huge cauldron of musical ideas, trying to reduce it to something elemental. What we were left with was Salt.”

Despite the group’s fervent efforts to tap into their roots, a lot of the lyrical content found on “Salt” was heavily influenced by the volatile world affairs we all witnessed globally in the heat of a pandemic. Understandably, a lot of their writing thusly surrounds the heavy, difficult subjects of loss, longing and fleeting hope. Moving forward from the pandemic has not been easy. For many of us, reconciling what we’ve lost with what we have been given has made our day-to-day lives bitter-sweet—to say the least. In times like these, I consider it crucial for artists of all kinds to recognize that when we experience loss, we are simultaneously given the gift of creative flow-state. And after my first few listens to Half Moon Run’s newest music, it is abundantly clear that Dylan, Conner and Devon—along with their producer, Seidel—have been perpetually immersed in this state.

For any readers who aren’t privy to the evolution of the group, HMR started in the dark indie subgenre, as indicated by their debut album title, “Dark Eyes.” During the composition of their sophomore record, the band began dabbling in bluegrass and folk within a dark indie theme—all the while grooming their aptitude for singing elaborate four-part harmonies. Four years later, the group’s third album ventured into a pop country aesthetic, with touches of bluegrass and blues rock. This was a new direction for the Canadian trio which came potentially unwelcomed by some of their original fanbase. In my opinion, the album was fundamentally sound, but disappointingly bland.

I know what you’re thinking, who am I to accuse Canada’s hometown heroes of releasing a bland album? Well, before you cast any stones back at me, let me tell you a little bit about my connection to the Half Moon fellas. See, I’m what you would call a day-one fan. Eleven years ago, my younger brother Theo—who has always had a great taste in music—told me to drop everything and look up a music video called “Full Circle”. Now this was back when iPhone screens were half the size, but nonetheless I pulled up the video, tilted my phone, and since that moment, I’ve been a Full Moon die-hard. Me and my brothers have attended every single Calgary tour date since—we even caught them in Edmonton for one of their five 2019 short run intimate shows—only because we stayed closely tuned to their newsletters where they leaked the ticket info.

Above: Taylor recounts the show through a poignant iPhone photo

So, when they released “A Blemish In the Great Light”, I listened to it front to back, and thought to myself, this album feels like a blemish in the great light of their discography. Critics across the industry praised the album, and they even won a Juno for Adult Alternative Album of the Year. And try as I might, I couldn’t find a single negative review on the record—so allow me to be the first to publicly say that it was not their best work. Their debut “Dark Eyes” was a bloody masterpiece, and their sophomore record was a dreamy follow-up effort, but somewhere between their second and third album, they entered a realm that perhaps appealed to an entirely different audience from their day-one fans.

Following their 2020 Juno winning album, they released a 2021 EP “Inwards & Onwards”, which showed glimpses of a return to form, bringing dark folk and indie rock back into the conversation. And six weeks ago, when my brother pointed out that they shared the sentiment “for fans of the band … this is THAT record”, I became cautiously optimistic that Half Moon Run had reconnected with their roots. The key to unlocking those beginnings was evidently listening back to all the rough demos they recorded during the early stages of writing and performing together—the same era which saw them compose their debut album (debatably the most complete Canadian indie album of all time).

I would argue that an artist has a certain responsibility to surrender to their darkest emotions in order to create their most compelling art. The beautiful emotional balance that Half Moon Run have found on their newest eleven-track LP is like a handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans; the songs are sweet, creamy, crunchy, bitter, dark and energizing all at once. The downside to caffeine and sugar, however, has always been the edginess and the come-down—and this album has no shortage of edgy tunes, and come-down tunes (my eyes welled up with tears during “Crawl Back In” and I can’t sit still when I listen to “You Can Let Go”).

One thing that’s clear as day when I listen to the new record, is that these three gentlemen are generational poets. Their new lyrical content is immensely cunning and comforting. Lead vocalist, Devon, is also harnessing a stronger, more mature vocal approach, most evident on track eight, “Gigafire”, as he passionately belts out: “I lay before the mother’s grave, when the link was severed, and how we broke the ring of time, baby aren’t we clever?”

Another compelling number is track five, entitled “9beat” which has an interesting backstory, as Conner disclosed: “For that song alone, Devon went through several hundred different Tascam recordings, mining for lyrical and melodic content. We’ve been working on that song for the better part of a decade, and that’s true of several songs on this record.” I’m immediately enamoured by the tricky drumming and the unique time signature. Not to mention, the guitars come into the fray flawlessly, lending nicely to the sentimental lyricism, “I miss my lazy heart, I miss my second chance, I miss my unborn child, I miss that warm goodbye.”

All in all, “Salt” contains a range of moods, subgenres, tempos and intensities, and after careful analysis, I’ve concluded that the average BPM on the record is 84, the average intensity is mid-low, the primary moods are somber, reflective, contemplative and hopeful, and the most reoccurring subgenres are dark indie and light rock. One of the most contemplative tunes is the title track, “Salt”, which touches on the relatable subject of a guarded heart and the appearance of a partner who eases the nerves and opens the door to receive love. Coupled with the smooth electric guitar runs and the ethereal synth lines, this tune brings a disarming element to the album.

And just when you thought you got through the record without letting your guard down, the closing song “Crawl Back In” pulls out all the stops with its serene guitar plucking and swooning melodies. As I listened to the album, I jotted down all the notable lyrics, and during the final tune, I felt compelled to jot down the entire piece. If you want to feel the warmth of the sun leading you on, listen along as you read.

Crawl Back In – Half Moon Run:

“My simple words don’t explain

all the cards in this game

or the debts left unpaid

so, I will harden my heart and crawl back in.

And so began my escape

from the arms of my fate

where the darkness awaits

but like a dog ashamed I crawl back in.

And today, oh today

whether sun whether rain

we are one and the same

in hope and pain, I crawl back in.

And so shall it ever be

that my hopes return to dreams

and my dreams return to the dirt

beneath my nails, as I crawl back in.”

In my short four years writing for Tuned Up, I’ve pre-streamed albums from Ben Howard, ZHU, Cigarettes After Sex, TOKiMONSTA, and many more, but I can confidently say that this is the most moving, cohesive record that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Truthfully, much of this record could be considered a “Dark Eyes B-side”. Go figure… my attachment to these songs continues to grow. As a day-one fan of the band, I resonate heavily with the band’s proclamation that this album is a dedication to the “fans of the band”. It seems that before the creation of this record, HMR hung up their straw hats and consciously deviated from the bluegrass music they’ve joyfully created this past half decade. They felt compelled to revisit their origins, and they clearly came face to face with their own shadows in the process.

Personally, I am extremely grateful that Devon, Conner and Dylan put in shadow work during the composition of this, their third masterful LP. Surely I am not the only one who will find great comfort in the sounds and poems found in the “Salt” of this earthly album. Globally respected Author & Metaphysical Teacher Stuart Wilde published a poem in 2009 entitled “The Hand”, which candidly recounts the many ways our hands are used to deliver blessings to each other. As a musician, the bar which captured my attention was this: “Most Blessed is the hand that plays music to comfort our soul.”

I consider HMR true pioneers of the music industry, as they have arguably carved out their own niche genre; in their third to fourth album transition, Half Moon Run went from full-moon pop rock to Half Moon Indie. Hats off, gentlemen.

Follow Half Moon Run on Instagram and Tik Tok.

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