Monday, September 29, 2014

Album Review - the new North Atlantic Oscillation album

The Third Day by North Atlantic Oscillation (Kscope)

The arrival of The Fog Electric elevated NAO up there with my favourite bands. Grappling Hooks was a good debut, but it only hinted at the brilliance to come. The final track on the debut album, Ritual, became one of my favourite songs of all time and whet my appetite for future recordings; I must have liked the album, I bought it.

The follow-up, also with a slightly nautical theme, was a delicate blend of ambience, rock and harmonies likened to Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips, but I saw them as an eloquent purveyor of their influences – Beach Boys merged effortlessly with Sugar, but with so much more than just a band to label by its inspirations. Each song was a thing of beauty, understated and poignant. The Fog Electric became one of my favourite albums of all time and Mirador joined Ritual on a growing list of great songs.

My biggest complaint with both albums was that they were too short. I wanted more and unlike some of their contemporaries, these guys were not going to pump stuff out for the sake of it. That’s why I like to think of NAO albums as bespoke pieces of work, designed to be an entire thing and not just a collection of songs – hence why they have many ‘bridging’ tracks. Sounds to savour and songs to last a long time – my label, not theirs. And that’s why I like this band; time and trend isn’t a factor with them; they do what they think is right and by God have they got it right!

Then came Sand – Sam Healy’s solo project; except, you know, he’s the voice of NAO, so his solo album was drenched in sumptuous vocals, twisting songs and bags of influences you do and don’t see on his band’s stuff. Sand is possibly the best album I’ve heard in the 21st century. I’ve said this since it came out and some albums wane with the passage of time, but after purposefully not playing the album for a couple of months, I dug it out to again whet my appetite for The Third Day. Sand has stood the test of a short time at least; it still has me acting like it’s the first time I’ve heard it.

NAO have done some cover versions; their first being I Only Have Eyes For You is a song from 1934 by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, it was made famous in the last 30 years by the Art Garfunkle cover, which I think, without checking, came from his Bright Eyes album, which made him more money than anything else he did after Paul Simon went solo. You can see in Healy’s voice that there are similarities with Garfunkel’s velvet tones, but with One Good Reason, a cover of a Bob Mould solo track, you can see why Mould has been a huge influence on NAO. They can do silky smooth and gutsy neo-grunge and it’s all got an ethereal quality.

The latest cover is Sisters of Mercy, the give away for people who pre-ordered The Third Day. It came with August, the single from the new album. August sets the scene brilliantly; from the moment I heard its on-rushing opening and the 60s merged with the 2010s I knew my wait was almost over. But Sisters of Mercy, a gentle song, which perfectly shows that this band have no convention; they don’t play by the rules; they do things their way and their way is a thing of beauty – Sisters of Mercy warrants a place on the album.

So, The Third Day...

I hated it. I put the advanced stream on ( the moment it went live and was worried. Where was the immediacy? Where were the heavenly tunes? Why did the first track sound like Phil Collins?

Except... As the album crept out of the speakers, I started to hear things. I was listening for familiarity; I was searching for NAO. They warned this would be different; I expected something different from what I got. Then it started to click. Oh, did it start.

Ten plays later...

There are stand-out tracks; like all their albums, solo or as a band, there are songs that immediately hook you in; if prog had a band that understood the sensibilities of a good pop song, this is them. Yet, it’s a track drenched in Scott Walker and again that Garfunkle fellow, A Nice Little Place that is the first song to grab you and make your knees go wobbly and that shiver down your spine. It’s just a thing of haunting beauty and falls halfway through the album. Then other tracks started to shine; I started to notice all manner of odd things, orchestras possibly, a distinct lack of anything like a heavy bass, subtlety is something these guys have many shares in. A gentle swing met with whirling crescendos – a moment of quiet met by an onrushing storm. The sea is in their bones and you can’t help wondering if they sit and watch the rhythm of the ocean, to get inspiration, to craft the way some of their sounds, like the tide, catch you unawares.

Drums, organs and synths, noodling guitars mixed with a understated thrashing – this borders more on post rock pop than anything else. I’m of the opinion that calling this band prog is totally wrong; progressive yes, but you can never pigeonhole this band with some of the dross currently masquerading as ‘prog’.

Anyhow, more gushing. The album opens with Great Plains II and as I said my first impression was they were channelling Phil Collins during his Hugh Padgham-produced days, but the song is more than just its opening notes, as Elsewhere proves conclusively; it’s not so much a song as a bunch of pieces of music strung together – it follows no convention and yet it works totally.

The tracks do tend to merge into each other for the first part and Do Something Useful slides into view very quietly and then bounces into a drums and synth hook that has you smiling and then the harmonies... oh the harmonies. I judge music by the amount of shivers it gives me and the shiver quota I get from NAO product is exponentially higher than any other band I can remember. The thing about Do Something Useful is it’s probably the most prog song on the album; odd time signatures, and a drum pattern that actually sounds like it belongs to another song, but fits in; and then it becomes the Velvet Underground...

If I had a weak track to choose (at the moment), it would probably be Wires, but saying that, it’s probably the best song on the album to drive to and it reminds me a little of Porcupine Tree, more in the way its constructed. Healy’s vocal are both ethereal and gruff, showing that he has a good range. It’s a strange track, because it feels almost on the wrong album, which is probably why I think of it as weak, but it leads into A Nice Little Place and that, with its gothic 1920s build up and mesmerising lyrics. The moment Sam sings, ‘It reminds me of a broken sun dial’ you can’t help but fall in love with this song, clarinets and all. It’s possibly the most brilliantly constructed piece of music this band has ever done. This is worth the admission price alone and it’s less than 3 minutes long.

Penrose is a jaunty little instrumental. It starts off with a simple drum-machine beat, is then joined by a snare and then a bippy-boppy keyboard. It’s actually quite a slight song and it builds up into something of a marching song, new instruments being added to the wall of sound and is a great little bit of music. Nice little twists – the kind of music you could see being used in an advert or film.

One thing I noticed about the Sand album was the great ending it had – the final three tracks really make that album into something more than just great. The Third Day does the same and perhaps the reason for Penrose is to wrong-foot you, because Pines of Eden, Dust and When to Stop combine to create a finale to perfectly compliment the 7 songs that come before them.

Pines of Eden is a monster; no crashing or banging; a simple song, constructed like a mini-opus that does the shivers down the spine thing again in spades, especially during all the little mini-crescendos. The thing is, the songs aren’t simple – they are wonderful art installations. Yes, the melodies are simple, but they’re combined in such a unique way that I’m of the opinion that NAO are as important to 21st Century music as Talk Talk was to the creation of Post Rock in the late 1980s. There is nothing quite like NAO out there, for all the comparisons and Pines of Eden is the perfect example.

Dust is a intricate construction song; it starts with a deep rhythm and Healy’s haunting voice and just builds and builds, like a snowball on a slope and then takes itself in a completely different direction while keeping the same melody. It darts about like a demented dog, yet never loses its focus. 7½ minutes of very clever song and one to get the prog fans chin stroking.

When To Stop is the appropriately titled final track and it’s essentially the title track. You’d imagine they’d go for something bombastic and big, because they’re a rock band, but this is almost folky in its structure and for the first couple of minutes you’re actually fooled into thinking this is going to be a nice pleasant and soft ending. Then something happens. From about 2 minutes the song becomes Phil Spector meets whale song with Brian Wilson on harmonies. The way the key changes come into play actually gives me an emotional response; it’s pretty much the most unexpected and perfect ending to an album I’ve heard in decades

Apparently this band is better live than they are on CD; I had the chance to find that out a few years ago and opted for beer instead. In October I’ll get the chance to see if their songs can be done better; as for The Third Day; my gut instinct tells me this is it, this is the best thing this band has ever done and if they continue to grow at the rate they have I can die a happy man, because I’ll know there’s more to come.


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