It took a natural disaster for Hookworms to make Microshift. At the risk of needlessly regurgitating a story that every music publication worth its salt will have made reference to in the past week or so, I’m going to briefly mention that fateful Boxing Day in 2015 when the River Aire burst its banks and flooded the Kirkstall area of Leeds, the epicentre of the city’s burgeoning DIY music scene, and with it Hookworms frontman MJ’s Suburban Home recording studio. The damage to the studio resulted in the abandonment of an EP the band had been working on (and weren’t, in all honesty, particularly happy with) and contributed to the three year wait between albums, a wait during which the band came to embrace synthesisers and electronic sounds. As devastating as the flood was it did precipitate one of those sickeningly faith-in-humanity-restoring events, wherein the studio was rebuilt off the back of crowdfunding. Both the individually-felt trauma and the community-driven recovery find their way onto Microshift (quite literally on the tribalistic, squawking sax-laden ‘Boxing Day’ and its ambient counterpart, ‘Reunion’) and contribute to the album’s pervasive juxtaposition of dark and light, of hopeless dejection and jubilant hopefulness.

To anyone even passingly familiar with 2013’s Pearl Mystic and 2014’s The Hum, Microshift feels like a rebirth for Hookworms. Those first two albums, released within 20 months of each other, feel of a piece to such an extent that the numbered instrumental interludes even continue in sequence across albums. Characterised by repetitive Krautrock rhythms, droning organs, punky explosions of jet engine guitars and MJ’s barely comprehensible, effects-laden vocal stylings that made him sound by turns bratty or like he was undergoing primal scream therapy, Hookworms' prior records were clearly designed to capture the visceral intensity of the band's notoriously high-tension live performances, which constantly teetered on the verge of cacophonous dissolution.

Microshift, on the other hand, is, very much a studio album, controlled and deliberate, its repetitions defined by electronic loops rather than metronomic basslines and pounded guitar chords. That is not to say our six-stringed friends have been ditched entirely. In fact, ‘Static Resistance’ could have slotted in nicely on The Hum, and ‘Ullswater’ features a return to what I would call Hookworms’ signature guitar sound, a rapidly strummed strangled squall that instantly puts nerves on edge. The Guitar-Band-Embraces-Electronics paradigm is so prevalent it’s become a tired cliche, so it’s a testament to Hookworms’ vision, and particularly frontman and producer MJ’s skills behind the boards, that synths are worked so seamlessly into the band’s sound that it feels like a natural progression rather than an abrupt volte face.

Opening track and lead single, ‘Negative Space’ is a masterclass in how to introduce, augment and strip away sonic elements. Building with all the patience of an LCD Soundsystem slow-burner, ‘Negative Space’ recalls the heyday of DFA-influenced dance-rock. MJ’s passionate delivery of lines like “how long’s forever?” bring to mind The Rapture at their most irresistible. Tension builds to breaking point and just as you think a crescendo is about to be reached, everything but the drums and organ falls away and MJ plaintively declares, “I still see you every time I’m down/My failing vision’s cruelest blunder/I still hear you every time I’m down/Laughing like you won't fall under.” It’s a beautiful moment, a breath of air before that promised crescendo hits, guitar solo and all!

It’s also indicative of the paradox at the heart of Microshift: this is by far the most joyful sounding music the band has produced, but the lyrics tackle some pretty bleak subject matter. ‘Negative Space’ is about grief for a friend who has passed; ‘Static Resistance’ features an anthemic chorus that literally declares “l’m facing down, I’m feeling awful. False hope forever!”; ‘Ullswater’ is about a parent succumbing to Alzheimer’s; there’re not one but two songs about romantic breakups; ‘Opener’ tackles masculinity and emotional inarticulateness; and closer, ‘Shortcomings,’ tackles negative body image and performance anxiety whilst featuring the most mockingly cock-sure bassline of the year. MJ has previously stated that all Hookworms songs are in some way about mental health, but it would be fair to say that we’ve never heard him this clearly before. In embracing a more accessible, poppier sound, MJ has stepped up as a vocalist and lyricist to the point where slower numbers like ‘The Soft Season’ and ‘Each Time We Pass’ are carried by the strength of his melodies and the profundity of his words. He’s no longer hidden beneath effects and walls of guitars. These are both songs that you could never have imagined the Hookworms of old producing. On ‘The Soft Season’, MJ could almost pass for Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, whilst the girl-boy duet on ‘Each Time We Pass’ is the sweetest-sounding composition the band has ever laid to tape, even if the song is a catalogue of how each of them has messed up, and MJ ends up imploring his partner not to wait for him.

Using the light aesthetic of pop music to make very dark lyrics more palatable in this way places Microshift in the tradition of albums like of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? or Passion Pit’s Gossamer (to cite two relatively recent and similarly synth-heavy examples). However, it’s not as if all the joyous-sounding moments on Microshift are undercut by misery and dejection. The group chant of “How! You! Comfort! Me!” lifts ‘Ullswater’ above its whirling spiral of regret, grief and existential dread. The clarion call of “we can help each other” on ‘Opener’ offers the hopeful consolation that this “slow, smothering existence” need not be a burden left unshared. Even in the midst of the destructive self-loathing and guarded disconnection of ‘Shortcomings,’ MJ declares that he has “found a way to love the world” by pinpointing the origin of his shame. “I was wrong, I was wrong,” he cries out. Never has such an admission sounded so ecstatic. If it wasn’t clear from the tenor of the music, Microshift isn’t an album that wallows in misery. MJ stares into the darkness, but he finds light too. While this sometimes means that the album risks sounding like the musical equivalent of that ‘Hang In There’ poster with the kitten dangling from the washing line, MJ’s words are delivered with such hard-earned conviction, and accompanied by music of such bracing energy, that it’s impossible not to be swept along.

In fact, that idea of ineffable forward momentum is key to understanding Microshift, and it only clicked for me when I listened to it, front-to-back, whilst literally on the move. As much as Hookworms have evolved since their first two albums, core elements remain, and one of these is that reliance on the motorik rhythms of Krautrock, which by their very nature, suggest forward movement. Aside from the two slow numbers and that ambient interlude which suddenly cuts in on ‘Boxing Day’ as if one were flicking channels to avoid bad news, the majority of the tracks here are carried along by the band’s insistent rhythm section. As I listened, I found myself picturing that river again. You know, the one that burst its banks and caused so much devastation. Eventually the rains subsided and the floodwaters receded. All the while that river was still running, moving forward with the irresistible inertia of time itself. The message is clear, and is reflected in the album’s lyrics: shit happens, life goes on, and time waits for no man. But, you know, not expressed in eye-roll-inducing cliches. It’s surely no accident that so many of the synth loops that serve as an undercurrent to Microshift, and act as segues between many of the tracks, seem to bubble, gurgle and splash beneath the surface like water. It’s almost as if the band recorded the album in the still submerged Surburban Home studio, half-drowning amongst the flotsam of the Aire. Those synths also recall the watery aesthetic that Ben H. Allen brought to Animal Collective’s breakout album, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. In some ways, Microshift is Hookworms’ equivalent of that album. A band with an established sound embracing electronics and pop songwriting like never before, but managing to do so without it feeling remotely forced, and finding their biggest audience yet as a result. We’re yet to see if that last bit comes true for Hookworms, but, given their accomplishment here, you’d have to be an irredeemable arsehole to begrudge them any success.