In two and a half years The Haig have released two albums, the enigmatic Template For Disaster and its equally cryptic sibling, Tales of Wisdom and Might. Then, they tempted us recently with Turnbull Suit 7″, a prelude their new creation, Ghost of Nuclear Future, due to be released September 24th. In light of this upcoming album, I decided to explore deeper into their music which I consider compositionally and thematically, sophisticated and decidedly… surrealistic.
To approach The Haig, one must dismiss all predetermined musical categories. They are categorically – uncategorical. Even within the more straight-forward rock songs in their repertoire, such as Camel Chase or 534342, there are sections which force the songs to defy classification – not that these passages do not belong within the songs – more that the fabric of a given song often alters radically yet, it does not lose continuity, direction, and flow, and consequently, it thwarts codification.
And here lies the crux of my association of the music of the Haig with Surrealism.
Spawned from Dada, Surrealism seeks to bridge the “previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality” through the unpredictable, juxtaposition and non sequitur. These three elements are present throughout the Haig‘s compositions and I propose that they are embued unconsciously and naturally during the songwriting process by each artist’s subconscious, as well as through the collective subconscious of this band as a cohesive creative entity.
First, to the music itself…
No song is like another. One cannot plug The Haig into any limited designation or genre. From their very first single to the current release of the Turnbull Suit 7″, these versatile musicians interfuse ingredients from a diversity of styles – from ProgMetal and Doom to Blues and Jazz to Folk and Reggae – developing compositions that defy classification. They come close to PostRock, yet the inclusion of vocals and lyrical song structure eludes even this placement. No genre is out of reach… listen to the switching back and forth between ProgMetal and DoomMetal pulses to a Reggae comping and rhythm that comprises their initial release… Shredded Wheat.
Compare this with the only instrumental in their compilation up until now, World Ate, and how the predominate stalking bass heralds the piece like someone pacing and briefly pausing. After one round, the guitar enters with gesturing notes that seem to imply that these two are in some contested discussion as they circle each other.
The number then breaks into the full band hastening somewhere only to sharply return to the opening section that merges into a reprise of the second section. This culminates in yet another shift of a high-hat and snare dominated quasi-reggae passage which, in turn, rebounds to the intro, and so on. The piece concludes in a repeating pace of notes eclipsing into extinction.
And the title?
Its relation to the composition?
I dare you.
What is initially apparent in their compositions is the unexpected or abrupt alterations in tempo, theme and key – drifting deep, or sprinting quickly off into some tangent, often to eventually return somewhat to the same, yet divergent theme. Or an intro that suggests a direction that is completely abandoned for an entirely different song structure that, in turn, may be suddenly interjected by the intro theme – such as the first number on their debut album, Template For Disaster – Starfruit (Galore).
Or an arrangement such as HYRF which, after a short free-form intro resembling swirling mists aggregating, motors along at a fair pace until a bit past halfway, it floats spectre-like into a strolling repeated bass and drum phrase that is built upon by intermittent spacey guitar and simulated xylophone notes – only for all to fade away to a singular noise which bounces, soars, then falls to a disintegrating pulse.
These are only two examples of the diversity of design, purposely or not, of this quartet – Dean Morris (guitar, vocals), Chris Davidson (drums), Richard Michel (bass, vocals), and Treawna Harvey (keyoards, vocals) – all of whom collaborate in the fashioning of these complex and intriguing compositions.
Suprise alterations of tempo and style, abrupt or fluid endings, and their accompanying juxtapositions, all jolt the listener out of the role of a mere ‘listener’ into one of increased attention. The expectation of familiar song structure continuity is demolished, therefore removing the comfort of any future anticipation of a conventional listening period. The listener is now only in the present moment, attuned intently to the song – the course of the music and lyrics and how they interplay. One is not aware now of reality, but is drawn into the ‘unreality’ of the song – its ‘sur-reality’ – its’ contradictory imaginative existence.
Looking over their entire archive, the only song I would chose to consider to ‘stuff’ into the general Rock genre would be Chinese Maria, as it is the only piece that maintains a somewhat more common song structure.
Compositional cohesion is another aspect which is apparent. These are not patchwork pieces stitched together, rather they meld effortlessly, one form into another, without complication or seemingly being ‘out of place’. Though stylistically separate parts appear dissimilar, even opposed, each ‘movement’ belongs exactly where it is. This contrasting balance is one of the factors that illumines the surrealism in the music of the Haig.
Even within the more straight-forward piece, the aforementioned Camel Chase, with its sword-edged guitar intro on top of galloping bass and drum, changes in the drumming styles/forms move from weighty marshall rhythms to full kit rolls to single kick. These changes interplay adroitly with the complex fingered bass lines… which brings me to the bedrock of The Haig.
Throughout all this band’s songs courses a consistent substratum – the clean sonorous timbre of Richard’s agile bass execution and Chris’ dexterous percussion methods, both of whom can migrate in synchronicity from sophisticated patterns into cavernous pulses with consummate ease and precision or, explore divergent directions while braiding their digressions with each other – yet always keeping the foundation of the song present.
Upon this bedrock, Dean’s measured impetuous guitar is free to oft-times scamper and careen in any direction or tangent imaginable and at other times, to howl and soar like a frenzied gryphon or… to unpredictablely meld within the course of a song.
Add to this complex mixture Treawna’s keyboard workings, the multiple sampled sounds – such as on 534342 (sirens, tractor motors, etc.) or on Sex (With A Woman) (recorded voices), and the layered harmonies of Dean, Treawna, and Richard vocalizing lyrics that are correspondingly as recherché and paradoxical as the music is.
So, in my view, the comparison of the music of The Haig with Surrealism is the avenue most apropos to penetrate their complexity and depth. I would consider listening to a composition by The Haig as akin to encountering a Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, or Dali painting – aural Surrealism suspended between dream and perception – each an enigma wrapped in a conundrum veiled within a mystery.
As analogy and example, I will compare the painting “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” by Salvador Dali to the Turnbull Suit (edit) released recently by the Haig.
In examining the painting (larger image here), one initially encounters a hand poised on land and holding an egg with a flower sprouting from it. To the left is what appears to be a more abstract rendition of the hand. Upon closer inspection, this second hand in the middle ground of the painting becomes a figure with wild floating hair on a shoreline half immersed in water and peering down into it in a transfixed introspective mood oblivious to the crowd of figures in various poses in the distance. The assumption that this second figure is Narcissus is taken from the title of the painting.
Looking deeper into the painting, to the right there is a building in the distance between the fingers of the hand, a figure standing on a podium of some sort, and above this figure in the hills behind, another figure who could be much larger considering the scale. The sky is part storm clouds, part clear blue. In the foreground, ants crawl on the hand and there is a dog eating something.
But if this painting concerns Narcissus – and one cannot merely assume it is – what is the metamorphosis? Is Narcissus changing into the hand with the egg or vice-versa? What are the roles or meanings the various figures? Can one guess that the lone figure on the podium means ‘putting oneself on a pedestal’? What, if anything, is Dali communicating? All in all, layer upon multiple layer of meaning to be deciphered by any observer of this painting.
But I am not concerned here with Dali. I delve into this painting only as an example of the layered meanings, juxtapositions, subconscious states, and “pure psychic automatism” that Surrealists utilize, not only in the plastic arts, but in literature as well. All of these elements are found interwoven in abundance within the music and lyrics of the Haig.
The instrumentals of Turnbull Suit begin as heavy rock, almost metal, then shift into an alt-rock mode whose bridge (chorus?) returns to a heavier mood similar to the intro. This is relatively straight-forward heavy rock with few surprises and no additional samples or sounds in the background, but… its clear-cut rock style is in complete contrast with the ambiguous puzzling lyrics.
The lyrics pose a scenario “Somewhere deep in the castle” where the protaganist sits (on what?) while a woman (girl?) with a blinding “head of sunlight” is “floating around at the top of the room”. The protaganist asks her to “Throw me down your hair”. Is she in need of rescuing, of being pulled down to his level, or does he wish to climb up to her, as in the fairy tale of Rapunzel? The lyrics produce question upon question – such as a dream one remembers upon waking would.
Did she just appear, as if by magic (Silver in smoke smelling sweet indeed / She came in from nowhere)? How and why is she floating in the room? Is she levitating? Is she floating because of someone else’s ‘magic’? Is this her natural state? Does the protaganist accept this as ‘normal’? Curiouser and curiouser (to quote Alice).
Sitting around in a Turnbull Suit
Somewhere deep in the castle
She’s floating around at the top of the room
Throw me down your hair
Silver in smoke smelling sweet indeed
She came in from nowhere
She said “Boy, have you got what I need?”
“Show me first your wares”
With her head of sunlight
I’m blinded suddenly
What might she say? Can I find out?
And I wish there was something
And I wish there was something
So tell me something
[Turnbull Suit (edit)]
The “Turnbull Suit” the protaganist is wearing – does it refer to Turnbull and Asser, the tailors for Prince Charles, or to the recent controversy concerning the new suit worn by Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s 29th prime minister, or merely a status symbol (because of the tailors) of self-importance similar to Narcissus?
Then there is an allusion to the nursery rhyme, Simple Simon (Show me first your wares) which could imply that this is a simple ‘boy’ wearing a suit not fitting his reality. Or is this a sexual innuendo ascribed to the protaganist’s genital area to see if he has “…got what I need”?
The song ends in the protaganist posing questions (What might she say? Can I find out?) and a desire to know what is needed …but, by whom? And who is the protaganist asking to “tell me something” – the floating woman …or the listener? It also poses questions to the listener as to what this whole scenario really means.
And what of the video created for the song?
There is no castle in here. Is this a prison? An insane asylum? There is no woman “floating around at the top of the room” nor no one sitting around wearing a “Turnbull Suit”. There is an insane woman (…but she’s not floating). And a figure whose lab coat is splattered in blood – either a murderer or a crazed coroner …or doctor. The purpose of the writing on the wall? It began with the end of an eleavtor ride. Had they gone up or down? And why is everyone periodically behind bars?
This is another layer added to the song by the Haig which only confuses one as to what is happening and what is being communicated. Again, just as when waking from a dream or nighmare and trying to make sense of it. It remains an enigma wrapped in a conundrum …and veiled within a mystery.
It is all a ‘dream-scape’ – a combination of images formed into a scenario which does not conform to what is considered ‘reality’. Are there meanings cloaked within the images put forth by the lyrics into one’s imagination? Or is this all merely nonsense? Either inference could be relevant. It is up to the individual to divine meaning from what is presented. This is the foundation and intention of Surrealism.
And this is precisely the music of the Haig.
If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them; first to capture them and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason.
[André Breton – Le Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924]
The compositions of Dean, Richard, Treawna, and Chris do not present clear-cut stories or narratives, nor do these artists write conventional songs of relationships, politics, or current events. Their creativity derives more from the unconscious – clusters of images that possess the disorienting hallucinatory quality of dreams.
Their songs are unreal and fantastic – sur-real – ‘beyond + reality’. They “capture” images, vignettes, and sketches that are not of what is accepted to be ‘Reality’ and through their artistic talents, bring them into our focus, our imagination. Suspended between our own perceptions and these many dream-worlds, their songs enchant as well as perplex
…and dislodge us from the common sleep.
the Haig are truly ‘Artists of the Surreal’.
I anxiously await the release of Ghost of Nuclear Future on Sept. 24th w/ their guests No Mistakes in Space, Elementals, and Destroy Clocks.
1. Rachel Barnes (2001). The 20th-Century art book. (Reprinted. ed.). London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0714835420.