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‘Heart Under’, Just Mustard’s second album and first for Partisan Records, is an album that asks you to forget what you know. At every turn, this remarkable record reconfigures and stretches the ideas and ambition of a rock band, and turns a year of lockdown and personal struggles into a breathtaking artistic statement.
The music the five friends from Dundalk, Ireland make is strikingly untraditional. Though to look at them, it appears that the band are a five-piece with uniform make-up of a vocalist, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer, not a single one of them utilizes their instrument in a confined or regular fashion. Guitarists David Noonan and Mete Kalyoncuoglu make their six-strings shriek and wail, the sounds produced sounding like everything from whirring machinery to horror movie monsters. On the introduction to the dark and dangerous ‘Seed’, it’s half-way to being a techno beat. On a great deal of the album, this harshness is juxtaposed by watery, swelling guitar chords that add a dreamy texture to the record alongside the more aggressive, industrial tones. “This is just a piece of wood with some metal strings attached – you can do whatever you want with it,” Mete says of his approach to his instrument.
Behind them, drummer Shane Maguire uses the rim of his drums almost as much as the skins, providing a clattering, metallic backbeat. “I wanted to reinforce the clangy soundscapes of the songs,” he says of his approach to his instrument, and the record includes Shane whacking a metal staircase with a stick in the studio. Most of the melodies on offer poke through from Rob Clarke’s inventive, nodding basslines, which have nods to The Cure, who Just Mustard supported at a Dublin show in 2019. Rob’s sub bass also plays a pivotal role in the sound, creating a sound that feels like an anchor at the bottom of the sea and adding extra emotional weight to the record. “It leaves open the space that a normal bass guitar would normally occupy,” he explains, “and it’s leaving a lot of room in the mid frequencies for vocals and guitars.”
Then there’s Katie on vocals. On the roaring climax to single ‘I Am You’ and the melodic and rhythmic verses in the sprightly ‘Mirrors’, she becomes the transfixing focal point of the band, where past material has seen her voice drop back to within the rest of the band, become an extra texture in the soundscapes.
Since the release of debut album ‘Wednesday’ in mid-2018, the band have undergone a subtle but firm transition, through propulsive 2019 single ‘Frank’ and the gargantuan ‘Seven’ from later that year. While ‘Wednesday’ and subsequent singles pushed Just Mustard away from fitting snugly into the shoegaze category they once occupied, ‘Heart Under’ makes them stand alone as a band that sound like no other.
Across its 10 tracks, the album presents a coherent style and ethos – those scything guitars, Katie’s magical vocals – but still incorporates a wide and untethered vision. There are brooding, atmospheric rock songs (‘Still’, ‘In Shade’) and others that apply a lighter, dreamier touch (‘Sore’, ‘Mirrors’), all tied together with impeccable instrumentation and a united vision. On ‘Wednesday’, the band played with dreamier soundscapes and production techniques, and ‘Heart Under’ serves as the next stage of this development, with every instrument brilliantly pushed to its limit and every boundary of the band stretched.
“This album felt very blue to us,” Katie says of the overarching vision behind ‘Heart Under’. “There was sadness and sorrow in the album, and it felt like being underwater and under something very heavy. We let that influence the music, but it wasn’t a decision – it just naturally happened that way.” Flowing through every part of the album, which unpacks the grief and sorrow that Katie was experiencing at the time of its creation, the theme of water also stretches to its majestic artwork. Commissioned by the band and painted by British artist Graham Dean, it shows a subject up to their chest in water. “His paintings lined up with the emotions in the songs,” Katie says.
The title, ‘Heart Under’, comes from the lyric “the heart under its foot” from the song ‘Sore’, and throughout the recording, the band discussed the idea of wanting the listener to feel like they’re on a train going through a tunnel. In every facet of the album is a physical and emotional intensity, with each note of dissonant guitar, thwack of a drum or piercing lyric hitting you right in the chest, just as intended.
Primary recording took place in Attica Studios in rural Donegal, with additional recording and post-production then completed at home, and this extra time they gave themselves results in an even richer and more intricately composed record. Katie’s vocals were also recorded at home, with extra time and space that allowed her to give a more emotional and honest performance. “The emotion in the vocals is really important to me, and I could really zoom in and take my time when recording at home,” she reflects.
After the band had finished recording and producing the album, ‘Heart Under’ was pushed even further into singular territory when the band worked with mixer David Wrench, whose previous collaborators include Frank Ocean, Let’s Eat Grandma, Jamie xx, FKA twigs and beyond. “We wanted someone who had done pop and electronic records and didn’t just work within rock music,” Katie says, with David adding: “I learned so much from what he did with the record. He put the spotlight on some things in the mix that we had no idea about, and he created so much extra space.”
Though written in the depths of 2020, ‘Heart Under’ is a personal document of a time that doesn’t comment on realities of the outside world. “I always write about what’s going on inside my head rather than anyone else’s,” Katie says. “We all use music to escape, and it’s good to have a break from life with music.”
An album not categorisable by genre or era, ‘Heart Under’ is a guitar album with guitars that don’t sound like guitars, an album that stretches traditional frameworks to make a thrillingly unique sound, and an album like little else you'll ever hear.
Laura says: With brooding basslines, distorted guitar shards and pummelling drums Just Mustard plough their own very unique path through the buoyant Irish guitar scene. Katie Balls vocals go from gentle, almost whispered melody to wailing banshee like howls as their sound veers between propulsive intensity and haunting soundscapes. It's a stunning, inventive album that while sounding completely unique, wouldn't sound out of place among early 4AD releases.
A3 I Am You
A5 Blue Chalk
B4 In Shade