By Ian Kenworthy

Reject all religion and moral principles, life is meaningless, and that’s a good thing. Or at least that’s what ‘positive nihilists’ Hot Milk want you to believe. They may be named after a warm, comforting beverage, but the pop-punk duo Hannah Mee and Jim Shaw aren’t trying to sooth you to sleep. They’re about to wake everyone up with their debut album ‘A Call To The Void’

Their first EP set out their stall, the second blew that stall to pieces and the third was the sound of them being dragged, kicking and screaming onto bigger things. That means this follow-up is a real surprise. Almost a reaction. It’s not bland or as mainstream as you’d expect, in fact it’s thrilling. They’re defiantly forging their own path and that’s much more satisfying.

On last year’s EP ‘The King And Queen Of Gasoline’ they worked with established producer John Feldman. Somehow the songs were stripped of the duo’s manic energy, making for a solid but uninspired listen. Here, they’ve taken back the reigns. The songs are built around pop-punk but turbo-charged, often experimental and frequently surprising, presented in a way that sounds more like an ridiculous Nine Inch Nails or an evil Panic At The Disco.

Let’s be clear, this a record filled with catchy choruses and it’s easy to listen to, but it’s just challenging enough to fall in love with. A Radio 1 DJ referred to their music as ‘traditional emo’ which only deserves a mention here because it’s so hilariously wrong. Nothing this band do is ‘traditional’ and their sound is so catchy and so forward-thinking it makes even nu-wave emo like ‘The Black Parade’ sound Stone Age.

Jim Shaw co-produced the record and this could be why it feels so fresh and modern. He’s in control of the sound. A few years ago every mainstream record seemed wedded to sounds like dubstep, so it’s exciting to hear so many un-tapped avenues being explored. The first big single ‘Horror Show’ uses the ‘classic’ sound they built their previous EPs around. Swinging wildly between throbbing electronics and filthy guitar noises. It’s delightfully noisy when it pitch-shifts the guitars up for the main riff or down for the heavy outro, and between its monologues, pounding drums and huge chorus it’s designed to catch your attention. Similarly, the huge guitar strums and chord changes on ‘Party on My Deathbed’ make for a great piece of boneheaded rocking. ‘Alice Cooper’s Pool House’ is as dumb as its title suggests but it’s filled with ideas, uses clever phrasing and leans heavily on duo’s individual voices to create some really slick hooks.

Apparently, ‘A Call To The Void’ refers to the brain’s trick of seeing opportunities to die and lyrically all the songs mine a seam of darkness, embrace meaninglessness or a sense of feeling lost. However it’s not one-tone or a concept record and while there is a undercurrent of regret, they more than make up for it with references to having a good time. The quiet closer ‘Forget Me Not’ slowly immerses itself in electronics, disappearing into a slow throb of dancefloor synths as the vocals dissolve. It proves to be an ideal endpoint.

As a duo there’s no band and there are no defined roles, so while the music is anchored to a full-band sound they’re not beholden to it. For example ‘Zoned Out’ is built around a bassline that gradually fades away, subtly shifting the sound. It’s a feature of almost all the songs here. They are free to shift and change in interesting or unusual ways. Most of them work. In fact the album’s only real weakness is that by trying more interesting avenues, the songs sometimes lose sight of themselves. And even this wouldn’t be a problem if the track order wasn’t so clunky. Why is ‘Bloodstream’, with its slow opening and languid pool-party vibes the second song? It accidentally kills the momentum dead and is all the more irritating because the song would fit perfectly after the chaotic ending to ‘Over Your Dead Body’ where the album could really have benefitted from its synthy pulses. Similarly ‘Breathing Underwater’ fits oddly in the runtime. The duo refer to it as their most important song, and while bathing the vocal in reverb works to reinforce its themes, it feels a little too fast to be the ballad it desperately wants to be. Still, it’s an effective song and the key change before the final chorus is one of the more obvious ways they show off their songwriting skills.

Choose any song and there’s a great little vocal run that stands out. Even the relatively pedestrian ‘Migraine’ has more than enough tricks to recommend or ‘Amphetamine’ where guest vocals from Loveless’ Julian Comeau had extra texture. While Mee could be called the lead singer and is largely at centre stage, Shaw always makes his presence felt, swinging in for some really slick hooks like on ‘Party On My Deathbed’ or the terrifying screams on ‘Over Your Dead Body’ which shift genre entirely, taking it into the same space as Bring Me The Horizon. Occasionally, Mee’s already high vocal is electronically processed to a pitch that could frighten a pack of dogs but she is consistently engaging and has a real knack for holding your attention.

Lyrically they mix honesty, wit and snotty defiance with more interesting and abstract ideas. It’s an effective blend with truly class phrasing. Occasionally verses like ‘I’m a wreckhead’ feel overly-forced or sit slightly oddly, but they’re presented with such style it hardly matters and obviously you have to consider the context; a song called ‘Alice Cooper’s Pool House’ is hardly going to be Proust.

It’s not quite brilliant, but there are so many ideas, so many things that really work, that it’s an easy album to recommend. Endlessly catchy, inventive and rejecting the most mainstream path ‘A Call To The Void’ is the most exciting thing to happen to pop-punk in years.


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