Friday, October 3, 2008

Review: A Storm in Heaven

Date: 1993
Release: Virgin #87950

Unless you spent the entire summer of 1997 in a coma, you’ve heard the song “Bittersweet Symphony.” Found everywhere from the top of the charts to Nike ads, under the leadership of Richard Ashcroft, The Verve crafted an album’s worth of beautiful ballads--Urban Hymns--that featured intelligent lyrics, soulful singing and exquisitely crafted pop melodies. Alas, The Verve broke up after the album, and we’ll have to hope that Richard Ashcroft‘s solo career provides us with more of those type of songs.

A listener unfamiliar with The Verve might wonder why they broke up then--at the height of their fame and fortune. As is so often the case, Ashcroft--the band’s singer--didn’t get along too well with Nick McCabe, The Verve‘s psychedelic-genius guitarist. If Urban Hymns was Ashcroft’s album, giving voice to his increasing desire for ballads and other traditional song structures, then A Storm in Heaven is McCabe’s album, a masterwork of psychedelic guitar virtuosity. In the space of five minutes, he erects and dismantles shimmering walls of sound, his tools a six string, delays, effect pedals, and a stack of amps. On almost every song, Ashcroft’s vocals are buried deeper in the mix, haltingly articulating the emotions called forth by McCabe.

Opening with the track “Star Sail,” The Verve issues a challenge to the listener at the juxtaposition of thick, somewhat discordant chords, and the almost lilting melody that emerges from it. How can such starkly opposed sounds open a song? Slowly but surely, McCabe builds up an impressive edifice: a twin melody emerges--McCabe’s playing and the heavily delayed echo--before thickly distorted guitar picks up, bending the song in new directions, at each and every turn building over Ashcroft’s haunting vocals. The entire album works much the same way--suggestive, but vague, lyrics; ever-climbing squalls of guitar noise; repeated crescendos rising and falling like the tide. Other highlights include “The Sun, The Sea,” which definitely puts the ‘rock’ back into psychedelic rock and “Butterfly,” which builds off a blues riff into a majestic, ascendant crescendo.

It’s most certainly not ‘poor’ lyrics by Ashcroft that make this McCabe’s album; they are as witty, wry and evocative as on any Verve album. The guitar work is simply that magnificent. More melodic than My Bloody Valentine; bluesier than the Stone Roses; The Verve are as a unit, rather than as Ashcroft’s backups--are at the top of their form on their debut album.

Players:
  •     Simon Jones – Bass, Vocals
  •     Richard Ashcroft – Bass, Guitar, Percussion, Vocals
  •     Simon Clarke – Flute, Horn Arrangements
  •     Kick Horns – Horn
  •     Yvette Lacey – Flute
  •     Roddy Lorimer – Horn Arrangements
  •     Nick McCabe – Guitar, Piano, Accordion, Keyboards
  •     Peter Salisbury – Percussion, Drums

Tracks:
  1.     Star Sail
  2.     Slide Away
  3.     Already There
  4.     Beautiful Mind
  5.     Sun, the Sea
  6.     Virtual World
  7.     Make It Till Monday
  8.     Blue
  9.     Butterfly
  10.     See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time)