Hookworms have made the best album of 2018. It’s a provocative statement, especially at the start of March, but right now I believe it to be true. Great albums often come with a backstory, their own built-in folklore, something that can be easily distilled into a short conversation that the record’s fans can tell far and wide in the hope that others will remember the album well enough to go and pick it up themselves.

Hookworms’ third full-length, Microshift, is no exception. It is already well told that keyboardist, vocalist and producer extraordinaire MJ suffered a great personal and professional setback when his home studio was flooded on Boxing Day 2015. It not only curtailed his production duties for other bands but also put Hookworms on the back burner for a couple of years. The time away has seen them go through a miraculous transformation, emerging as a sharper, more focused recording act, more willing to step out from behind their trademark wall of guitar feedback and embrace the possibilities of electronics.

All of which naturally asks the question of how this affects the live show. Tonight they are playing the second of two nights at Salford’s White Hotel venue as part of a self-curated weekend of bands. In short, they are the same primal, emotionally wrought steamroller of a live act, only now armed with a more muscular, distinct and confessional arsenal of material.

They open the set with the astonishing opening trio of tracks from Microshift, a guaranteed turbo-boost to kickstart any show. The White Hotel’s full crowd is still a little resistant to reflect the energy, however – perhaps they were afflicted by a fleeting case of ‘too cool for school’ – but the energy from the stage is formidable.

MJ, who always seems to be straining to reach a microphone that is well within his range, delivers every line with a tight, deeply felt passion, most often coming across as rage. Opener ‘Negative Space’, driven forward as much by synth keys as by guitars, is littered with moments where the pent-up frustration is released in a glorious purge: “HOW LONG’S FOREVER” is the key moment, a primal scream that serves as much as catharsis as it does as a real question. Most of the new tracks operate in that space, blending DFA-inflected expansive songcraft with honest, candid accounts of, as MJ has put it, “chronic depression and grief”. The build in third track ‘Ullswater’ culminates with, “I’ll always love you/It’s the last thing I’ll say/I know it’s the last thing I’ll do/Stay strong”, all the more powerful after an eight minute escalation of emotional claustrophobia.

Older tracks are liberally sprinkled through the set, with ‘Radio Tokyo’ and ‘On Leaving’ receiving especially strong reactions from a crowd that has finally warmed up. As much as the storytelling makes sense to do so, the inclusion of Microshift’s biggest hitters early on lends a slight sense of top-heaviness to the setlist, but the back half of the new album is also teeming with great material and nearly all of it gets its outing. Bigger (and better) venues surely lie ahead for Hookworms, and as the story of Microshift hopefully continues to spread, these songs will have their moment to be experienced properly. Over to you, everyone else in 2018 – can you beat this album?

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Max Pilley

I'm a refugee in Manchester, having successfully escaped Birmingham in 2007. I'm a soon-to-be journalism student, used to edit the music section of the Manchester Uni paper, and have done a little radio production to boot. I've been adding bits and pieces to Silent Radio since 2012, mostly gig reviews, but a few albums too. Also hoping now to get involved with the brilliant radio show. When doing none of that, you can usually find me at some gig venue somewhere around town.