It’s been ten years since Hanalei released One Big Night, which is a long time between records for anyone. Hanalei is primarily frontman Brian Moss, who has also played with The Ghost, Wunder Years and other bands with names similar to more popular groups. But Hanalei is by far its own thing. It’s from the punk world, but not of the punk world. Musically it’s probably somewhere between Jets To Brazil and The Weakerthans -- two bands that I appreciate very much to this day, if you want a preview of what this review is going to say.
I abhor the “literary” descriptor in music criticism because, honestly, what does that mean? But it’s fairly applicable this time around, because most of Hanalei’s lyrics are written in full sentences; heck, “Antibody” is loaded with alliteration. Similar devices are used throughout. But don’t let that fool you into thinking this is plodding, dense or dry material that’s published to the wrong medium. It’s sensitive and soulful, but never self-indulgent.
Black Snow is soft rock that draws influence from across the board. I already namedropped Weakerthans, who I think bear the most similarity, with subtle country, highway rambling tones, and more. This isn’t balladry or even an author ruminating in self-reflection; it’s narrative storytelling. And the music matches with ebbs and flows of emotion and movement. There are more somber songs like “A Billion Ghosts” that fit the stereotype you’d expect by reading so far, but it’s far more dynamic and energetic overall. “Regional Manager” utilizes clever call-and-response vocals for an unexpected twist and the bright guitar tones of title track “Black Snow” reflect at the listener with powerful, hopeful energy. Meanwhile, Moss can actually sing, but he mostly uses his voice as an additional instrument. The lyrics tell the story, but this is a comprehensive project with full illustrations thanks to the instrumentation. While Hanalei may have started as a solo project, it’s not a singer-songwriter gig: it’s a band.
The album is a concept record, or collage in Moss’ words, that tells of a not-so-distant future ravaged by humanity’s mistakes. The stories within are articulate and touching but the power goes beyond sitting down with a lyric sheet. Just listening, the tone of Black Snow is that of any working-class city that’s been scarred by history and natural forces. It’s honest, open and humble, but equally tireless and resilient, even hopeful.