Saturday, May 3, 2008

Review: Mostly Autumn - Glass Shadows

On Tuesday morning the pre-ordered edition of Mostly Autumn's seventh studio album "Glass Shadows", which I'd ordered at the beginning of the year, arrived on my doormat.

Since I recommend something by them in RR just about every week, you should have guess by now that I'm a huge fan of this York-based act. They've actually been going for more than a decade, completely under the radar of the mainstream media. Their sound is unashamedly 70s, mixing elements of prog-rock, folk-rock, and classic AOR to produce a rich sound that's far more than the sum of it's parts. You can hear influences of Pink Floyd, Fairport Covention, Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac, but they manage to transcend any simple pastiche. While I can never really second-guess other people's likes and dislikes, Gordonimmel and DarceysDad ought to love them.

The band lineup has changed over the years, but the constant factor and creative heart are Bryan Josh on vocals and guitar, and Heather Findlay on lead vocals. Bryan is a fantastic lead guitarist in the mould of Dave Gilmour and Steve Rothery, and his technically limited but heartfelt vocals are balanced by Heather's wonderful voice, a perfect mix of precision and emotion that somehow manages to sound both sensual and pure at the same time.

Heather Findlay at Gloucester
Heather Findlay at Gloucester Guildhall, 24 April

Like many bands outside the fashionable mainstream, they finance their albums through pre-orders from fans, and this is the third one of theirs I've ordered this way. I'm probably too much of a fan of this band to be able to write anything approaching an objective review of anything by this band. When I've seen them live eighteen times (so far), have met the band several times, and am on first name terms with some of them, I think I'm a little too close to be able to view their music dispassionately. But I'm going to try anyway.

This was an eagerly-anticipated release. The previous album, the good-but-flawed "Heart Full of Sky", though the band's biggest seller to date, rather divided the fanbase. While it included at least a couple of absolute classic songs, I felt there were too many places where half-formed ideas weren't properly developed. It was as if the band had overreached themselves trying to produce a double album in a limited timescale, and the end result fell frustratingly short of the better album it could have been.

This time around, they haven't made the same mistake. The sound, engineered and mastered by John Spence, is very different from the overambitious wall-of-sound of it's predecessor. It's a more stripped down, organic sound, a little closer to how the band sound live. Not quite perfect; I'd like to have heard the backing vocals of Olivia Sparnenn and Anne Marie Helder a little more prominent in the mix. With Iain Jennings and Liam Davidson only rejoining the band for the start of the tour, and Chris Johnson having left before the start of recording, it's left to Bryan Josh to plays almost all the keyboards as well as all the guitars. While there are probably a few places where Iain Jennings could have added some of his magic touches, Bryan's studio keyboard playing seems to have improved from the rather simplistic playing on much of HFoS. Like the last couple of albums there's not much flute, now played by Anne Marie Helder rather than the recently departed Angie Gordon.

With a running time of just 55 minutes, they've concentrated on quality rather than quantity, and spent the necessary time honing the arrangements. There is nothing half-formed on this disk, and no filler either. Musically the band continues to move forward; they've refused to play safe by creating a pastiche of their past. Like many great bands of the past they've explored some new musical areas, but still kept enough elements of the past sound to keep the majority of existing fans happy.

It's also a stronger than usual album lyrically, gone are some of the awkward and clunky lyrics that have marred previous releases. They're not singing about Hobbits any more now; they've got too much from their real life experiences of the last couple of years. It's a true life story of heartbreak, joy, tragedy and hope.

I don't normally do song-by-song reviews, but I'll make an exception here.

The album opens with a strongly riff-driven hard rocker. With the subdued opening it starts off sounding like Fleetwood Mac, then turns into Led Zeppelin when the guitars come in at full strength on the second verse. Turn the volume up all the way up to eleven for this one, and rock out!

Second Hand
A dreamy atmospheric piece with Bryan singing lead that wouldn't have sounded out of place on one of their early albums. This is one of those songs that doesn't make an immediate impact, but creeps up on you after a couple of plays and gets stuck in your head. There are a few lyrical and musical similarities to a slowed-down version of 'Pocket Watch', but this is several orders of magnitude better.

Flowers for Guns
This one has 'potential single' written all over it, an upbeat pop song you can actually dance to. Heather's lyrics are actually about the traumatic events of the middle of last year. Although they haven't done anything quite like this before, somehow it still sounds like a Mostly Autumn song. There's a great flute solo from Anne-Marie Helder in the middle.

Unoriginal Sin
This song is essentially Heather's response to Fish's "13th Star". The melody and vocal delivery remind me a lot of parts of Odin Dragonfly's "Offerings", only an awful lot angrier. The dark brooding arrangement featuring some heavy guitar at the end, and I have to wonder if Bryan channelling Fish's guitarist rank Usher is deliberate.

Paper Angels
Dedicated to backing singer Livvy Sparnenn, who's going through very difficult times at the moment. One of the most emotionally intense songs on the album, and knowing exactly what Heather's lyrics are about, this one hit me hard. Musically this could easily be a Breathing Space song, the first part a sparse piano and vocal arrangement, before Bryan launches into one of his best solos on the album.

Tearing at the Faerytale
This was the standout of the new songs they played live when I saw the in Gloucester, a big soaring guitar-driven epic that almost rivals the traditional live encore 'Heroes Never Die' in scope. It's dedicated to Livvy's dad Howard, a truly great guy I've had the privilege of meeting several times.

Above the Blue
In complete contrast, this song is beautiful shimmering ballad. The sparse arrangement, just piano and a subtle string arrangement from Troy Donockley gives Heather's voice the space to shine. I find it reminiscent of 'Broken' from "Heart Full of Sky", only far better.

Glass Shadows
Clocking in at more than eleven minutes in length, the title track is the only song on the album for with the label 'prog' is really appropriate. From the hauntingly atmospheric intro through to the intense swirling instrumental section towards the end, it's a impressive well-structured piece, the only place where the Floydian influences they've worn on their sleeve on past albums come to the fore.

Until the Story Ends
A semi-acoustic love song about not one but two couples (I won't say who, but Richard Nagy's illustration on the lyric booklet is a big giveaway). The lyrics are perhaps a little bit soppy, but by this stage I think they've earned the right to a bit of soppy.

A Different Sky
This is the only song on the entire album that just doesn't work for me. It's not that it's a bad song in itself, but this summery sixties-style pop number just sounds out of place on the album. The previous song makes such a musically and emotionally satisfying album closer that this song somehow diminishes it. I've suggested on the band's web forum that they leave this song off the June retail edition of the album, and release it on it's own as a single instead.

Aside from that one quibble about the final track, this is a very good album indeed. It might not quite be the career-defining masterpiece some people close to the band had been hyping it up to be, but it comes very close. The limited edition, complete with "making of" DVD is available from the band's website. The normal retail edition will be released in June.


Blimpy said...

mega post, kalyr!

i couldn't find anywhre on the linked website to hear the music, am I being thick??

Tim (Kalyr) said...

You're not being thick, I don't think they've put any samples of the new album online yet - the album doesn't go on general release until June.

Being in the dark ages of dialup for at least the next two days I haven't checked what's currently on their myspace site.

They are on tour at the moment, the next gig is in Leicester this Saturday.