Normil Hawaiians are not a band that is often mentioned when discussing 1980s indie, but a cursory glance at Discogs shows that, if you wanted to buy their two albums, (1982’s More Wealth Than Money or 1984’s What’s Going On), you pocket would be around £75 lighter (at best!) afterwards.
Return Of The Ranters was recorded as their third album in 1985, but was shelved and has never seen the light of day…until now. Record company Upset The Rhythm have spent time working with the band, tracking down the original master tapes and are now ready to unleash this most extraordinary album into the world.
Normil Hawaiians are possibly the only band that I have ever heard of to be described as ‘troglodyte industrial’ and as such are definitely my new favourite troglodyte industrial band.
If you favour music that challenges you a bit, you may well be drawn in by Return Of The Ranters. From the off, the cacophonous beginning of opening track ‘Sianne Don’t Work In A Factory’, with discordant violin loops for a full two minutes, gives fair notice of what to expect – but the song takes an unexpected turn and morphs into a beguiling melody with subtle vocals that would have had people foaming at the mouth if it had been released with Radiohead on the cover instead of Normil Hawaiians.
‘The History Of Coal’ is next and has a really lovely (and simple) chorus-ed repetitive guitar riff with plaintive lyrics floating over the top while subtle keyboards sparkle in the background. Even with a song title as seemingly self-explanatory as that, it is a hard one to pin down lyrically, as are many other songs on this album. The singer, who I think is Guy Smith (but forgive me if not!), reminds me of the singer of one of my favourite bands of the same era, Tim Harrison of The Dancing Did, who ploughed a similarly singular furrow.
‘Slums Still Stand’ stopped me in my tracks – Scouse-flavoured vocals, (a different singer this time), on top of a beautiful acoustic guitar-led backing track. But those lyrics – the song could be carbon-dated to 1985 with its mention of ‘Thatcher’ and the Miners’ Strike and is the most directly political song on the record. The band were very politically active and it strikes me while listening that so few are in 2015. The best way that I can describe the song is to ask you to imagine an uneasy marriage between Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘One September Monday’ and Cocteau Twins‘ ‘Oomingmak’. It isn’t every day that you get to wheel out that comparison. ‘Slums Still Stand’ is breathtakingly effective.
The absolute highlight for me, though, comes with ‘The Search For Um Gris’. I am not going to claim that I know what it is about. I have even Googled ‘Um Gris’ without getting any further in my quest for knowledge, but this song is six minutes like nothing I have ever heard before. A fairly chaotic first couple of minutes, with multiple different hard-to-hear vocal tracks, it takes on a driving rhythm and then the most incredible chord changes soar above the clouds as the vocals take on a new-found clarity. ‘What’s the colour of your heart?’, goes the poignant vocal refrain. Something keeps bringing me back to this remarkable song; I have listened to it ten times today alone.
Another six-minute epic, ‘The Battle Of Stonehenge’ deals with the band’s first-hand experiences of the authorities’ treatment of the mid-80s Peace Convoy there, when over 500 were arrested. It paints a vivid picture indeed, including snatches of news reports in the background. It sits between two short and pretty instrumental tracks that were seemingly put there for the listener to catch their breath.
The album closes with the two least commercial tracks – ‘Steam’ and the ten-and-a-half minute ‘Mouldwarp’s Journey’; I would confidently state that both would be a long-shot for this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert music.
A beguiling, mysterious and addictive record.