Contrast can be a wonderful thing in music. If you were to hear the isolated vocals of singer Katie Ball, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was an artist making the kind of sweet-sounding, emotive indie-pop music that is often bothering the top of the charts these days. Her soaring voice is beautiful. But when you add in the rest of this five-piece band from Dundalk in Ireland, the reality of Just Mustard’s sophomore album, Heart Under, is something much different. Under those often delicately performed words, we have guitars that sound like a chainshaw, crunching basslines that scream of claustrophobia, and frantic but controlled percussion that takes centre stage in these ten captivating songs. It’s a heady mix, with the songs sometimes feeling like they’re about to explode, but yet somehow never feeling anything but controlled and meticulously pieced together.
The album opens with a three song cacophony, progressing from Ball’s almost whispered and acapella opening lines on ‘23’, to the strong and confident chorus of ‘All Of You’ on track three. In between these sits probably the album’s strongest song in ‘Still.’ If that title makes you think of Joy Division, you won’t be too disappointed when you give the track a listen – it shares a lot of trademarks of those post-punk pioneers. The repetitive but hypnotic drumbeat, the clashing of the two guitars, the persistent pull of the bass. I mentioned the chainsaw like guitars before and this is one of two songs where they are most prominent and, alongside other elements that sound as if they could be coming from tools usually used for something other than music, they lead to a feeling that not only are Joy Division a big influence on the band, but that producer David Wrench takes a lot of inspiration from Martin Hannett.
While the marvellous ‘Seed’ that comes after these three tracks does slow things down (in a way), that doesn’t mean that it’s a let up. It’s another powerful, swirling song. It’s followed by ‘Blue Chalk’ which again makes contrast the key marker of its affect, starting with a soft and stunning bit of singing from Ball before gradually growing to a crescendo that causes the arms on your hairs to not only stand up but almost escape from your skin. This will be the moment when everyone at their shows stands in stunned silence.
For those who might be feeling crushed under this wall of sound by now, there will be no way out as the album moves into it’s second half. ‘Early’ is a dingy masterpiece with Ball’s best wail on the album. ‘Mirrors’ is mesmerising, ever-changing. ‘In Shade’ sounds like the band have suddenly joined forces with Warpaint, effectively blending their industrial, shoegaze sound with something a little poppier and dancier. And then we end with one of the album’s most ambitious songs in the shape of ‘Rivers’, the light and shade of which is a perfect summation of the album.
The eagle-eyed who have heard the album will notice that I haven’t mentioned ‘Sore’ yet, but that’s because it deserves it’s only special shout out. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word chainsaw in a review before, but here it is for a third time today – those intense guitars really grab you in this absolute highlight track, bashing you over the head and shaking you out of a stupor. This is Ball’s best vocal, too, showing her range in a way that some of the other songs don’t. Her voice isn’t just sweet and delicate – there’s power there, too.
Just Mustard have been supporting Fontaines DC on tour this year but, while they have both released great albums in 2022, if you were putting the two against each other it would be Heart Under that came out on top. While Skinty Fia jumps around a little, this album from Just Mustard is one of the most consistent sounding, cohesive pieces of work I have heard this year. It shows a band who knows what they do well, making the most of their strengths and using the things that make them stand out to their advantage. I enjoyed their debut, but with album two they have smashed their way to a new plain and I really hope they get the recognition they deserve. This is something special.
Words by Fran Slater