Hales casts his spell over an astonishing debut

Review by Heather Metherell

MATT Hales, the creative genius behind Aqualung, must be finding it hard to catch his breath. His is a story musicians can only dream of, in which chance has kindly allowed a rare and undiscovered musical talent to shine.

Just two weeks after his band, the 45's, lost their Mercury record deal, and subsequently broke up, Matt was suddenly thrown into the spotlight alone, bartered over by record companies, and clutched at by the media, and all because of one 'strange and beautiful' song.

Composing has always come naturally to Hales; in fact he once described writing music as akin to 'eating and shitting' in its inevitability.

This is, perhaps, not a surprise considering he was brought up living above his parent's independent record store in Southampton, and started composing on the piano at the age of four.

Matt was classically-trained in music, studying composition at Guildhall, but had a leaning towards rock and pop music. He found some success with the band Ruth, and their later incarnation, The 45's, but is was short-lived and Matt was faced with finding an alternative way to vent his musical gift.

They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, it came in the form of VW Beetle. Having composed some music for adverts before, Hales was asked if he had any music that would be appropriate for the car manufacturer's new campaign; little did he know that his next decision would be life changing, as, within days of the advert airing on television, calls were coming in thick and fast, asking about the soundtrack - Matt's song, Strange and Beautiful.

From then on things started to move incredibly quickly, and within five weeks Matt had produced an album, by himself, in his home studio. The result is one of the most poignant, delicate and deeply moving albums of the year. Comprised of 11 songs - some old, some new - it has a sad, haunting quality, reminiscent of Radiohead, but rather more optimistic.

Aqualung's sound revolves around simple piano arrangements, complemented by Hale's high, soft, airy vocals, that have the same kind of simple, intimate quality as those of Coldplay's Chris Martin.

There is definite evidence of Hale's classical training, in the beautiful harmonies and the layering of two-note guitar samples in If I Fall, and the unusual time signature and key changes in Just For A Moment.

There are many comparisons that can be drawn with other bands. Hales has obviously been influenced by the close harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel, there are touches of George Martin's Beatles arrangements in Can't Get You Out Of My Mind, as well as a strong soul sound in Falling Out Of Love that could be likened to the music of Aretha Franklin and Burt Bacharach. But, despite this, Aqualung's debut stands on its own as a breath of fresh air.

This is intelligent, thoughtful music and, when you've listened to the album, it feels like you've been inside the composer's mind.

This is down to a deliberate manoeuvre on Matt's part, inspired by the Beach Boy's, Pet Sounds, and Radiohead's, O.K Computer, to create one mood for the whole album.

The result, for the listener, is the knowledge of where the music will take you. It demands your full attention, as its fragility leaves it in danger of being swallowed by any other sound or movement. It is music for contemplation, and will be treasured by the broken-hearted.

So where will Matt Hales take us next? Aqualung's first gig will take place on November 6, and it will be very interesting to see how well the intimacy and quiet reserve of this home-spun album is interpreted live.

The incredibly short period of time in which it was pulled together has affected the sound and ambience of the music, and perhaps it is the rawness of it that makes it special.

That said, I hope that Hale's good fortune doesn't run out before we've seen what could develop, given time.

Track listings:
1. Strange & Beautiful (I'll Put A Spell On You)
2. Falling Out Of Love
3. Good Times Gonna Come
4. If I Fall
5. Just For A Moment
6. Tongue-Tied
7. Can't Get You Out Of My Mind
8. Everything Changed
9. Gentle
10. Nowhere
11. Halfway To The Bottom