Northern Ireland: home to Snow Patrol, Rihanna’s boob-based farm scandal, and what was, for 30 years until 1998, Britain’s only fully functioning civil war. What the country really isn’t famed for, though, is art-rock bands. Y’see, art-rock just doesn’t fly in this crunch-punk-loving province. And with their affectless post-punk and brittle C86 pop, Girls Names are about as quintessentially ‘Northern Irish’ as an Argentinian horse.
But listen as their debut unfolds, and you’ll see – in their menacing beauty and dread stillness – a band whose dark disposition has everything to do with Northern Ireland.
Since the ceasefire, a new breed of artists have rejected the Ash-helmed grunge era in favour of a less simplistic vernacular better able to capture an emotionally damaged country as it heals. If noise-lords LaFaro are Belfastian defiance incarnate, and Two Door the gleaming face of The New Northern Ireland, then Girls Names are the country’s troubled heart. ‘The New Life’ is the very sound of being haunted by your past, tapping into the angst of a population struggling to move on. “How can we ever begin…” sings Cathal Cully on the title track, “…born to the bomb?”
‘The New Life’ charts the band’s expansion from macabre garage rockers to full-blown goth act. Draped in Cully’s spectral baritone, ‘Drawing Lines’ is The Wipers reduced to an ominous shimmer, while ‘A Second Skin’ pits vampiric downstrokes against terror-speeding arpeggios. It’s their death-obsessed garage rock writ panoramic – the sound inching on ‘Hypnotic Regression’ towards the bombast of mid-’80s stadium goth. Crucially, though, they never concede to caricature. That’s because ‘The New Life’ is about real life, laid bare. Austere and mistrusting of dark fairy tales, this is goth with a post-punk soul.
Songs persistently subvert fancy in the name of realism. On ‘Notion’, atonal notes and dark FX embitter the sweet C86 melodies, while ‘Occultation’’s remorseless synth-whirr undercuts a resemblance to The Cure’s grandiose ‘Disintegration’. And rather than a ‘soaring finale’, the eight-minute closer simply glares atop an unchanging guitar line. The title implies a yearning for better times, but if Girls Names’ cinematic sweep has a romantic quality, more often than not they use bigness to dwarf Cully’s voice against giant, lonely vistas.
In places it’s a bit samey, marred by a shortage of songs. But ‘The New Life’ is, nonetheless, a must-listen. Not only for its seductive power, but because it feels unprecedented. Never before now have the doomy stylings of post-punk been used in the context of Northern Ireland. ‘The New Life’ sounds like a gag loosened, a voice finally unsilenced.