Bassist turned basketball columnist Dave Hartley has a third great passion: science fiction. It’s this that informs his solo output as Nightlands, Hartley’s spacey, synth-stacked side-project away from regular band The War On Drugs. Oak Island is as flushed with forward momentum as Slave Ambient, albeit more spaceship than road trip.
Hartley is pictured on the cover as an over-polished living bust: bedaubed with lustrous silver spraypaint, a man in an android’s skin. It’s a fitting motif for music that melds sheeny synth and keys with vocodered choral harmonies. When it’s languid – and Hartley comes in peace – the effect is rather like the hazy reverie created by High Highs. More often, the vocals seem slightly removed from the listener, part of the percussion-powered machine. ‘Rolling Down the Hill’ is perhaps the most obvious reference point here, being the album’s experimental extreme, a trancelike track with robotic voices that are part Man Machine and part Conchords. The beat degenerates into bongo-style frenzy, as high vocal lines bleed into ominous synths in a mildly disquieting way.
The poppier songs are probably the most successful, ‘So Far So Long’ achieving a chilled-out, tuneful euphoria, while a jolly horn section adds welcome warmth to the hurtling ‘I Fell In Love With a Feeling’. Opening track ‘Time and Place’ is full of exploratory wonder, sailing worlds and shifting time, yet it’s hard to hear Hartley’s billowing self harmonies without thinking of ‘Stay Another Day‘ – and when the lyric recalls being “only 17″, the coincidence is completely distracting. Captain, we have picked up some Walthamstow-aways.
Forget the Mantra, Hartley’s first album as Nightlands, was notable for its repeated use of dictaphone-style snippets of speech. On Oak Island, such personal touches are exchanged for a grander sound, from the hymnal quality of ‘Other Peoples Pockets’ to the (frankly mantric) message of ‘You’re My Baby’: “We’d better run, to catch the sun/It’s setting fast, this breath could be our last”. There’s even a hint of Martian heat ray in the highest notes on this track. Strip away the sci-fi calibration however, the metallic cladding and oxygen suits, and evidence of Hartley’s day job can be found in the strong rhythms and the spanning of horizons: intros that uncoil and songs that unpack into expansive terrain. There are even cold and distant echoes of ‘Comin’ Through‘ in the first bars of ‘Born to Love’.
Moonlighting as Nightlands affords Hartley a fleet and pleasing diversion through hyperspace. Closing track ‘Looking for Rain’ is an ambient comedown, and suggests that globes-trotting might not be wholly fulfilling. Oak Island is an exciting ride with uplifts, lulls and a sporadic note of menace – but the all-round brilliance of Slave Ambient ensures that Nightlands is just a quality aside for now.