Monday, August 08, 2016

Review: Sand - A Sleeper, Just Awake

A Sleeper, Just Awake
Vineland Music
Released - September 30

I feel both honoured and privileged to be given a preview copy of this new 'solo' album from North Atlantic Oscillation's Sam Healy. I suppose classing his debut eponymous Sand album as the best thing I've heard in the 21st century helps. I'm sure he'll be as pissed as hell at me telling you, he asked me to, you know, skip over it if I didn't like it... Yeah, like that's going to happen ... either way.

How do you follow up an album that I regard as the finest piece of music since 1999? By doing something familiarly different, that's how. But is it as good as 'Sand'? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm on listening #4 and what started as something considerably less welcoming than the debut is suddenly clicking into place. It's funny how music can do that.

On the first listening I got at least six moments where you get that chill running up your spine; the sensation that the lightning has been bottled again - and why not? I think Healy is a genius. It doesn't bother me a jot that I was listening to his contemporaries before his folks even thought of him, because his contemporaries don't have the 21st century to collect together half a century of song writing and condense it into something both completely modern and yet remarkably set in the kind of past you'd imagine in a Sinatra song.

Whereas Sand was a brilliant pop album; ASJA is anything but pop, yet it's splattered all over the record like it doesn't matter how hard he tries, Healy just can't shake a good riff. Plus, in many ways this is even more detracted from North Atlantic Oscillation, yet almost like stuff you'd imagine being done in the studio before Grappling Hooks came out. That's part of his brilliance - you know who he is even if he's wearing disguises.

Is it that awkward second album? It certainly is awkward at times, but not in a bad or negative way.

So, A Sleeper, Just Awake, what's it like?

Shall I get the awkward bit over and done with? I can see the influences and even if Sam disagreed with me, there are elements of Phil Collins (sounding like he really should have done more drugs when he was younger), as well as John Martyn, Steven Wilson and Guy Garvey. You can't help but draw parallels between this and especially the later Talk Talk albums because there's a 'jazz' sound at times - not jazz jazz but arrangement wise; like there was an element of sitting around the studio and seeing where something leads you. Despite what I'm about to say, the spirit of Mark Hollis is writ large here. I can also hear Scott Walker, 1980s electronica, Sam's Irish roots... but most of all I can't help but think of Peter Gabriel and the way Sam's voice contains that velvety smoothness that the likes of Art Garfunkel possessed and the former Genesis front man managed to make jagged and hard while never losing its warmth.

In many ways this album reminds me of Cardiacs. Not in the sound, they are almost diametrically opposite there, but in the simple fact that Healy, like Tim Smith, has more ideas in some songs than bands have in their entire careers. Layers of depth, sweeping crescendos, giant epic sounds mixed with quiet moments of contemplation - this is an album that is up and down - in tempo - like the Assyrian empire. If anything, I'd say Sam has tried just a bit too hard to come up with something different from both the debut album and anything N.A.O do, yet I can't help think that in years to come this might be looked at as something of a masterpiece. It begins with a track that sounds ever-so-slightly out of whack - modern prog as it should be - and ends with a slow exhale rather than a thudding crash. It's impressive. It is a bold statement not bound by convention. It gets better with each listen as more of it is uncovered.

I'm also glad that it's a grower rather than an instantaneous blast, because that proves to me that masses of thought has gone into this. I even spotted the turkeys. At the moment it isn't in the league of the first album (few albums can even lick its boots), but there's absolutely nothing to be bothered about, because it may end up being better.

Stand out tracks by the end of play #4: LBGT, Berceuse, Initial and Coward.

8 out of 10