Irish quintet Just Mustard’s debut album, 2018’s Wednesday, often got labeled as shoegaze, but the band’s jarring, hollowed-out production suggested they had harsher, noisier tricks up their sleeve. For every pairing of distortion-infused guitars and breathy vocals—a mix strong enough to earn the band opening slots with The Cure—there was something more viscerally horrendous around the corner. Wednesday opened with what sounded like an entire factory’s gears grinding as if about to explode, and that mechanical noise remained at the album’s outskirts, like a rusty train rattling past a small town. Atop all this commotion, frontperson Katie Ball explored dark images too vague to read as autobiography, yet too twisted to pass as autofiction.
On Heart Under, Just Mustard’s sophomore album, the noise at Wednesday’s periphery becomes the center of attention, and Ball reaches further into her whispery high register as she gestures at nightmares and horrors without clearly painting them. She doesn’t need to be direct in her lyrics—her haunting sneer carries enough tension to mount a curtain rod, and her band’s guitars now sound less like stringed instruments than crazed wild animals crying for help and electric grids sputtering out violently. To call this sound “shoegaze” would grossly understate the innovation, intensity and sheer brutality of the music. Heart Under is simultaneously ghostly and glorious, a wretched yet emancipatory tornado of distorted dissonance that places the band among the vanguard of the British Isles’ ever-crowded post-punk scene.
Heart Under isn’t entirely without precedent; you can find threads of how guitarists David Noonan and Mete Kalyoncuoglu and bassist Robert Hodgers Clarke reimagine and expand their instruments’ timbres and roles in the music of fellow Irish noise-rock greats Gilla Band. The two bands share an affinity for paranoid sounds, though where Gilla Band frontperson Dara Kiely’s battles with psychotic depression are clear in his lyrics, Ball conveys anxiety more through her delivery—her lyrical style shares an abstractness with Heart Under’s unsettling album cover. And where Kiely and co. have often used their destruction and rebuilding of guitar music to infuse punk with suffocating claustrophobia, Just Mustard are more interested in slower-paced, bruised but triumphant sound design. Instead of filling every corner with ear-splitting volume, the band tiptoe between worrisome calm and trenchant barrages, and Heart Under’s transitions from the former to the latter are consistently invigorating and cathartic, regardless of whether you see them coming.
As Heart Under standout “Seed” progresses towards its explosive denouement, a sea of guitars shrouded in phaser and tremolo effects builds a sense of simultaneous rest and unrest that hints at some big-time pressure relief at the song’s end. Ball’s voice likewise maintains an eerie sense of equilibrium even as she starts enunciating her words more urgently and loudly. A quieter stretch gives way to her absolutely wailing atop guitars that shriek and whine like horses let loose in a steel factory, and the fact that this was obviously right around the corner makes it no less powerful. It reminds me of how, no matter how much your anxiety compels you to prepare for some terrible theoretical event, that moment will still feel just as awful as if you hadn’t prepared at all.
“Sore” transforms the expected into the uproarious and liberating just as formidably. Guitars that sound like hellish wind chimes ebb and flow from pared-back to hollering, becoming more fanged with each chorus. After Ball’s vocals reach their most desperate in the final chorus, the guitars take on so much heft they sound more like nuclear alarms than stringed instruments, something akin to the apocalyptic roar of Portishead’s “We Carry On.” The apex of this tension-building approach is “I Am You,” where crawling bass first draws you in and subsequent guitar noise evokes infinitely echoing car brakes. The gradual pace at which this cacophony coalesces into a storm of ever-bending guitars is fully hypnotic, and the maelstrom drives Ball’s most powerful vocal performance. “Change my head!” she repeatedly cries as the sounds under her become increasingly head-swirling and tough to follow. Her fire burns hotter with each yelp, and when the tempest gives way to sparsity, you can feel a weight lift off your chest, as though Ball has exorcised your demons alongside hers.
“I Am You” is the rare Heart Under song where you can reasonably guess what Ball is singing about. “Change my hair / Change my dress / Change my head” suggests a desire to become a different person inside and out; by the time she starts belting the final line over and over, she sounds desperate to free herself of some sort of terrible pain. Elsewhere, she leans into images at once unsettlingly unclear and clearly unsettling. She has often cited dreams as a fascination, and Heart Under’s lyrics are like nightmares in that, even if they make no sense, they still pump fear into your bones and adrenaline into your heart.
On “Still,” Ball sings, “I’m inside it, I have been / Going backward, still sitting,” drawing upon themes of surrender and spiraling. There’s no knowing the exact events she’s describing, but you can feel how little control she has over her surroundings; her band’s gong-like bass plucks and muscular performance emphasize how trapped she feels. “Was waiting for the sun in my hand,” she intones repeatedly on opener “23,” an image equally disturbing and beautiful: All that heat can sustain life and destroy it in equal measure. Then there’s “Mirrors,” which, like “I Am You,” is more vivid: It’s a queasy story of looking in the mirror and seeing someone else, and Ball and Noonan recite it atop overwhelming, yet freeing musical clamor. Or maybe they’re singing about being so disassociated from yourself that you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror, or maybe it’s a song about body dysmorphia. There are no firm answers in a Just Mustard song—just terror and relief in the sound.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Oh, and sometimes he critiques, too. Follow him on Twitter and find his writing at Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, MTV News, FLOOD, The Creative Independent and, of course, here at Paste.