“I dreamt I was one of a group of child soldiers in the midst of a guerrilla war. We were running through a far-flung jungle with bandoliers and knives, hunting out this enemy. All the while I could hear this primeval drumbeat in the back of my head, and a voice saying, ‘When you find the worm, you must kill the worm.’”
These words, uttered by lead singer Henry Spychalski in his April 4th interview with The Quietus, introduce the inspiration for what would otherwise be a confounding sophomore album from London’s young HMLTD. The band broke out in the city’s local art-punk scene with their debut singles “Is This What You Wanted” and “Stained” in late 2016, two menacing experimental dance punk tracks that channeled Ziggy Stardust over Death Grips production. It wouldn’t be long before they were discovered by major label talent recruiters, always on the hunt for provocative paradigm shifters, and indeed with the release of four more singles they caught the eyes of Sony Music in 2017, earning a record deal alongside a firm promise that the band would be made the biggest in the world. The future was bright for these wide-eyed kids barely out of high school, and for all they could tell, it would only get brighter.
But things changed, as they so often do for up-and-coming groups. Their output went radio silent for almost a year as they clawed to escape a record contract that was rapidly revealing itself as a bad idea. When they eventually did break free from Sony, they had to scrap their debut album, leaving them back at square one. It wasn’t until February of 2020 that HMLTD finally came out with their true debut, West of Eden, this time under indie label Lucky Number Music. After almost four years of strife and stress, the band could at last rest easy in the arms of warm reception, as the album did well. Their new style proved more refined; less needlessly violent and more emotionally poignant, still leaning into electronic pop but blending it with folk more often than punk. HMLTD was back, reunited with their fanbase and acquainting themselves with new listeners through a sound that, while experimental, was still palatably pop. And so, with the boys having found themselves a comfortable musical nook, what is their latest album like?
A progressive rock opera about a giant worm, of course.
“Wyrmlands,” the first single from the The Worm, opens with a panic attack of piano and saxophone free jazz, both drowning in a river of sporadic drumming and guitar strumming entered at once by Spychalski’s calling “The Worm is here!” The band, dressed in the music video in what could only be described as modern-medieval wear, style themselves as a Dungeons & Dragons party, apparently off on a quest to defeat an infamous Worm which has swallowed England whole; but this is revealed to be only part of the story. At the song’s midpoint the chaos subsides: Piano keys and echoes of horns reverberate softly as Spychalski recounts seeing worms writhing in mud as a child. He recognizes himself in them, to great shame, and this reveals to the listener that this war is not just a battle against the great Earth-born Worm which holds England in subjection; it is against every Worm that inhabits the souls and minds of man.
In the interview excerpt abridged at the beginning of this review, Spychalski continues: “Then, in the dream, something changed. I realized that in fact I was the one being hunted by the other child soldiers. I tripped and they started tearing me open. I floated above the body of my child self, watching all the other children tear me open. I was full of worms, and the children were eating them.”
The Worm stands for many things. On the title track we hear “Hatred is the Worm! / Envy is the Worm! / Ego is the Worm!” Later in that same song, which is composed as a pure rock opera with all the wondrous melodrama one created by HMLTD could have, it is described as capital, and as having the form of a noose. There is no simple allegorical double for the Worm; as best as I can tell, it is a representation of all crises of the human spirit, festering within the soul and projecting outwards onto society to create the aforementioned Wyrmlands.
Free jazz, progressive rock, soul blues; dream pop, indie folk, and rock opera. HMLTD’s quest to kill the Worm is an incredibly varied journey musically, and it eventually leads them to a genre as far from their early work as they’ve ever been – at the album’s finale, they go devotional.
“Past Life (Sinnerman’s Rise)” is the effective final battle of the album, and as the focus has shifted away from the outside world, away from the cosmic worm that has enveloped England and into the hearts of man, it is only fitting that the end of this war be waged on a battleground of faith. Piano triplets and handclaps drive forward a march headed by prayers and calls for solidarity (“But Lord tell me why / Why you never just gave me a sign? / Tell me how to keep the faith.”) Spychalski calls on his followers – rebels against the Worm – to “dream another world” wherein possibilities for peace do exist, and to have faith in this dream, in themselves, and in convincing them Henry Spychalski finally convinces himself of hope’s importance. At the song’s climax, he announces “I’ll keep my faith,” regardless of the turmoil and of how his feet may blister on his walk to “the well of human kindness.”
This leads into the final track, “Lay Me Down” – a gospel song through and through. The apocalypse has happened, as it inevitably would, but by reconciling with his faith, Henry Spychalski has found peace within himself. A Greek orchestra ensemble (unfortunately not credited on streaming services) perfectly captures the scene in music, contrasting a background of chaos with an overwhelming joy for life, and with a soaring guitar solo and a “Don’t fall away!” the album reaches its climactic conclusion. Yes, it’s sappy, and it’s cliche, and good lord is it melodramatic, but should a rock opera about a godlike worm be anything but all of those things? It’s called The Worm for Worm’s sake!
Regrettably, I don’t think HMLTD went campy enough with the concept. While “Days” is a beautiful song, it’s undoubtedly out of place next to one called “Saddest Worm Ever,” and the meta-subplot about Wyrmlands being a dream of Henry’s, as hinted at on “Liverpool Street,” unnecessarily complicates an already perfect album concept. A Worm has engulfed England and it is infecting the hearts of its inhabitants – that is all that the story needs.
The Worm is an impressive and unprecedented follow-up from HMLTD, one which could only be created by a band as creative and daring as them. However, I’m not sure if I’d consider it a step forward. It sounds almost nothing like their previous work, and as far as style goes, I believe they took the sonic concept of this album to its absolute limit. I don’t see their next release – whenever it comes about – furthering this rock opera sound, though it is likely that the experience with full band composition will come in handy for later projects. I would place The Worm as a wonderful, rejuvenating side-step in the timeline of HMLTD as a band, and while I can’t guarantee that fans of this album will like the group’s older work, I do think they will at least appreciate the spirit of it.