21 Aug 2018

The Sampler: Invisible Lines by Ha The Unclear

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 21 August 2018

Nick Bollinger finds a preoccupation with science in the guitar-pop songs of Dunedin's Ha The Unclear.

Ha The Unclear

Ha The Unclear Photo: supplied

My methodology may not meet scientific best practice, still I can report from my observations a recent surge in local bands reverting to classic guitar-based pop.

This is the only one I can think of though, whose pop is actually preoccupied with science.

Ha The Unclear is a guitar-drums quartet from Dunedin, whose second album Invisible Lines comes hard on the heels of other strong albums from local guitar bands, including Auckland’s The Beths, Christchurch’s Salad Boys and Wellington’s Hans Pucket.

Invisible Lines

Invisible Lines Photo: supplied

What makes Ha The Unclear stand out are the quirky insights of their chief singer and lyricist Michael Cathro. In ‘Bacterium (Look At Your Motor Go)’ (which confusingly, was the title of Ha The Unclear’s first album, which didn’t include this particular song) he starts off musing about evolution and expanding universes. By the second verse he’s contemplating the Punakaiki rocks and Moeraki boulders. It’s not the only song here that concerns geology.

‘Things, Rituals, Things’ (Ha The Unclear have great song titles) finds Cathro again turning his analytical eye on the world, and it occurs to me this might be quite a New Zealand thing to do. I’m reminded of Don McGlashan, whose entire field of study could just about be summed up as ‘things and rituals’, and whose songs so often make us think about objects and places we take for granted by pointing out their peculiarities.

There’s more of that in a song like ‘Big City’, which takes an anthropological look at modern urban life, specifically as it might appear to a small town South Islander paying a first visit to Auckland.

As for ‘(All Of Our Friends Have Moved To) Australia’ – well, who but a Kiwi could ever have written that?

But musically, too, this feels like New Zealand. ‘Wallace Line’, with its bright chords and crisp rhythm giving it its slightly Pacifican flavour, has hints of the great and only album of Bressa Creeting Cake, the New Zealandness only accentuated by Cathro’s undisguised Kiwi accent, which lends a guileless charm to the already appealing melody.

Invisible Lines covers a fair bit of ground, yet never sounds like a band in search of an identity. One of the reasons one feels in such safe hands with Ha The Unclear is that, as a band, they seem to know who exactly who they are.

Or is it that, as meticulous observers of social and physical phenomena, they see who we are and, in these smart and soaring songs, are simply reflecting what they see?