Ideas galore from Bristol prog experimentalists Last Hyena.
Release Date: 30th April 2021
Label: Stereobrain Records
Formats: Vinyl / Digital
Last Hyena is a three-piece Bristol-based outfit that specializes in a challenging fusion of post-rock, math, prog and jazz, whilst consciously endeavouring to avoid falling into any specific genre trap. Their music is unpredictable and turbulent and is littered with fleeting moments of surprising gentleness.
How Soon is Mars? is the band’s debut album, but they’re no strangers to the studio, having already released a pair of well-received EPs – the eponymous Last Hyena (March 2017) and I Remember The Future (November 2018). It’s an instrumental album (well… almost…) – the band were considering inviting a vocalist to join their ranks but decided that they relished the amount of space afforded to them by the absence of vocals, so decided to forge ahead on that basis, with the help of producer Tom Peters at Trapdoor Studios in Liverpool. Frank Zappa, Colour and Delta Sleep are mentioned as key influences in the music of Last Hyena, and they’re all detectable on How Soon is Mars? It appears to me that the band have also been having a good listen to King Crimson; traces of Red and Larks’ Tongues (in particular) are liberally peppered across the eight tracks of the album.
It is, perhaps, the unpredictability of the music that is the album’s most defining feature. As the band explains: “We always have a strange approach to writing songs. There are no pre-written riffs, no ‘Guys – I’ve written a song.’ The three of us sit in the practice studio and just start picking each other’s brains for sections. When we have something that interests us, we spend some time changing time signatures and adding stops and pushes. This then will make up a few bars of music before we decide we want to go into something else.” And those few words go a long way to describing how the end product of How Soon is Mars? was achieved and what it’s all about. It’s an album that truly is packed with ideas.
The tunes are complex, multi-themed, with a heavy emphasis on bass and drums, topped off by guitar that has its default setting in deep grunge but which also displays incredible delicacy, often when such delicacy is least expected. How Soon is Mars? has been described as “A celestial soundtrack [that] takes listeners on a journey through the galaxies of prog, post-rock and math-rock with moments of awe and wonder, jarring discordance and gigantic soundscapes.” A bit flowery perhaps, but an accurate description nonetheless.
The album kicks off with the current single Where’s Laika? The tune takes its name from Laika, the stray mongrel that was lifted from the streets of Moscow in 1957 and sent into space on board the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. Needless to say, she died. It’s a dramatic opener with some highly evocative sequences that seem to cover, in turn, the take-off into space, the dreamy sensation of “floating in a tin-can” the operatic re-entry and the slow demise of the spacecraft and, it can be imagined, Laika herself.
And by that point, you know exactly what you’re going to get!
Terra and Chilton serve up more of the same, with numerous King Crimson points of reference in each tune, before we reach Doctorpus, the album’s first single and another of its highlights. Like the majority of the album’s tunes, Doctorpus covers many bases as it veers between prog majesty, bass-led exploration, pastoral subtlety and straightforward grunge. There’s even a short vocal section, albeit only a short, bellowed, “Doctorpus – You’re just an octopus.” It’s quite something!
The second half of the album comprises three longer pieces, each one a mini magnum opus, and each one exploring a number of different themes without settling anywhere for too long. Programmed to Lose is, perhaps, the most conventionally prog tune on the album, as well as being the album’s most accessible tune, but even here there are enjoyable jazzy passages and some heavy riffing to keep things interesting. Similarly, I’m Supposed To Be The Good One, the album’s closing track is an amalgam of psychedelic and heavy rock that proceeds to gets seriously funky and then almost folky before building to a crescendo that brings the album to an epic finale.
How Soon is Mars? is a fine effort from a young band that clearly knows what it wants and has a good idea of how to get it. A little rough around the edges in parts, perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a problem. This is a model that could spawn something special.
Watch the Official video for Where’s Laika? – the album’s latest single – here: