The new collaborative LP Concrete Island by The Heartwood Institute and Hawksmoor is named and inspired by the 1974 novel by J.G. Ballard. Ballard set the standard when it came to the dystopian novel, having written High-Rise, Crash, The Drowned World, The Atrocity Exhibition and The Unlimited Dream Company to name but a few. His work has inspired many, but it seems the punk, post-punk, and art rock world of the 70s and early 80s were especially indebted to Ballard’s bleak and darkly humorous world view. Along with Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard tapped into our fears of a world eating itself and then having the gall to ask for seconds.
On Concrete Island, James McKeown(Hawksmoor) and Jonathan Sharp(The Heartwood Institute) build steely worlds with synths, hissing rhythms and electric bass, bringing to mind artists like John Foxx, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Rudiger Lorenz. It’s thick with dread and heavy on the chromed-out sleekness. It’s menacing and intimidating, but at the same time you can’t help but crawl into this world’s sonic headspace and bask in it’s cold indifference.
Now before you say “Hey, I’ve never read a J.G. Ballard book. Is this album right for me?”, let me tell you that reading the book to get into this album is not a prerequisite. If dystopian sci fi, cyberpunk, and post-punk/new wave are words that make your ears perk then you’ve come to the right place. I haven’t read Concrete Island and I locked right into this album. Plus it helps that Hawksmoor’s Methods of Dreaming and The Heartwood Institute’s Witchcraft Murders are high watermarks in the electronic music world to my ears. Together these two have built a mighty dark fortress to get lost in.
Setting Ballard’s novel aside, Concrete Island is just a solid post-punk electronic record. Something like “The Architect(An Arrogant Protagonist)” could sit proudly on a late 70s Kraftwerk LP or Bernard Szajner album. It seems to seethe and hiss as it breathes through the speakers. A musical conduit of angst and rebellion. “Through The Crash Barrier” grinds in an industrial swirl of hypnotic noise, pulsating like AI discovering self awareness. McKeown and Sharp have locked into this world they’re paying homage to in a very real, visceral way. “Fire Signal” plays heavy on the funkier side of post-punk, with McKeown’s bass guitar adding a touch of humanity to the cold electronics. The combination of synthetic and organic plays very well here.
Oddly enough, I’m reminded of Mr Eff’s ode to grimy, dangerous New York Eyes Down. The cold, disconnected electronics and utilitarian beats that feel like a death march into oblivion are very much present in both that record and Concrete Island. Both are odes to dystopian worlds; one was created from the mind of Ballard while the other was created by actual policies, social strife, and class warfare that Ballard writes about in his stories.
There’s not a bad track here. “Median Strip” is carried along by a sleek groove and wavering synthesizer, while “Beast and Rider” flows effortlessly with an almost electro-disco rhythm. I hear a lot of Gary Numan in these tracks, as well as early Mute Records vibes. Album closer “Escape” is grand sonic psychosis. Beautifully curated electro dystopia.
The Heartwood Institute and Hawksmoor’s Concrete Island locks into Ballard’s world, giving his dystopian novel and headspace the grand symphonic anxiety it so deserves.
8.5 out of 10
‘Concrete Island’ will be availabe 3/5 via Spun Out Of Control. Hit up their Bandcamp this Friday and grab a copy.