Girls Names’ fourth full-length album is very, very good. In knowing this, international sighs of relief will surely be breathed by listeners – this one included – faithful to the Northern Irish four-piece since 2011’s Dead to Me. Girls Names refuse to be harangued by notions of conformity: for an indication look no further than 2015 single ‘Zero Triptych’, broadcast in its eleven-minute entirety on BBC Radio 1.
Championing Girls Names feels akin to recommending a long-running TV series – each album its own sequence of episodes, shifting tonally and sonically from “season” to “season”. You’d be hard-pressed to find another group whose evolution has been so plainly laid out for all to hear. In Love Island-friendly terms, this band requires commitment.
This time experimentation has taken them to a new zenith. Final ties to their surf-pop roots severed, long gone are the dreamy throes of ‘I Lose’, the frantic whip crack of ‘A Troubled See’. Dead to Me, the centrepiece of such sentiments, is by now an estranged uncle of a record, memories of a breezy spring buried under an expanding, increasingly challenging back catalogue. The New Life (2013) was an ambient masterpiece; Arms Around a Vision (2015) shoegazed with a kick. Stains on Silence is the next logical stride: a record that sounds like the soundtrack to a Bavarian language adaptation of an obscure Soviet play.
It sounds glib but Stains on Silence really could be airlifted out of the airwaves, plucked from some long lost pocket of late-70s post-punk gloom. Joy Division comparisons are tired yet ultimately warranted, and if anything should be worn like a badge of honour. The tie is accentuated here, angular Bauhausian angst scoring twilit European backstreets. Never mind Factory and Tony Wilson, the scarcely instrumental ‘A Moment and a Year’ sounds as though it was recorded in a factory.
‘25’ is like a demented take on Leonard Cohen’s synthy I’m Your Man output, complete with wayfaring piano. Elsewhere, ‘The Process’ implodes into an unexpected frenzy before it is cut off altogether, apparently by a Dalek ray gun. ‘Fragments of a Portrait’ is one part Radiophonic Workshop, two parts Irmin Schmidt… the remix, ft. Ian Curtis. ‘Haus Proud’ brings to mind Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s eerie compositions for Channel 4’s Utopia (2013-14); while the title track falls more in line with a religious experience.
These often cavernous soundscapes make for a less claustrophobic atmosphere than on previous releases – given room to breathe, Cathal Cully’s baritone delivery evokes from time to time the timbre of a Gregorian chant. Lyrically Cully is unafraid to draw upon literary influence, borrowing in the past from Kafka and now Samuel Beckett: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”. These footnotes elevate the music with a certain context and mysticism.
‘Karoline’ wraps up with more gorgeously understated piano before Girls Names disappear into the void. Stains on Silence’s most precious triumph is this: I doubt the Girls Names of seven years ago could have produced, lest yielded the ambition to craft these songs. The drive to cover new ground, to innovate – it didn’t happen overnight, it happened while we were watching, with each passing release. Stains on Silence is a climax, a reward – but hopefully a promise of chapters to come. If it were a girl’s name it would be Gertrude. I cannot champion it enough.