20 Apr 2024

Review: Kingdom in a Cul de Sac by Ha the Unclear

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 20 April 2024
Ha the unclear

Photo: Supplied

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It’s always interesting - and increasingly common - when NZ bands are enthusiastically adopted by overseas territories.

Local guitar outfit Ha the Unclear started in Dunedin, before migrating to Auckland, releasing their debut LP ten years ago. Their latest operates as a kind of best of, featuring new tracks alongside older ones, as they capitalise on a new record deal with a French label, and subsequent attention from European audiences.

Looking up the tracks on this album was, frankly, quite confusing, as previous LPs seem to have been scrubbed from streaming services, and songs released six years ago have been uploaded as new releases. 

Looking at the notes it seems like there are four new tracks out of the twelve listed, including ‘Fish’, a rapidly-strummed instant earworm with the typically ‘Ha’ hook "fish don’t know that they’re in water".

Singer-songwriter Michael Cathro has been penning similarly irreverent sentiments since the band’s beginning, cheerfully oblivious but secretly smart. In fact he’s completed a Masters degree in Science with first class honours, and is open on how that’s fed back into his songs over the years. One here called ‘Mind and Matter’ is described as being about “flattening time and existence”.

For fans, it’s easy to notice the changes between the earlier material and newer tracks. The manic energy of songs like ‘Growing Mould’ and ‘Mannequins’, from their first album, has been tempered somewhat, although not extinguished. Cathro’s voice has also strengthened, and production is a bit warmer, but to fresh ears it’ll all sound of a piece. 

There’s a confidence to the way ‘Mind and Matter’ relishes in its empty spaces and lets them breathe, slowly building to that wall of noise. ‘Alchemy’, another science-themed new entry, ladles on pop hooks and vocal harmonies, building to another ecstatic peak.

A Kingdom in a Cul de Sac seems to acknowledge the way it loops back into the past with its title, and will hopefully add to the amount of French airtime Ha the Unclear have already received. The band is playing shows in Paris this month. 

They’ve also included a cover of the 80s French hit ‘C’est Comme Ça’ as a kind of gesture of good faith, and in the process, invested it with their distinct brand of New Zealand-ness.