22 June 2023

The Verve – Reflecting on the 30th Anniversary of “A Storm in Heaven”


The Album First Came Out on June 21, 1993

A century ago Rudolf Otto cultivated the concept of the “numinous” (from the Latin “numen,” “the divine, magic spirit of a place”), envisioned as “mysterium tremendum fascinans” (“mysterious, terrifying, and fascinating”). Romain Rolland called this the “oceanic feeling.” Carl Jung thought that the numinous could be a healing experience for the human psyche. Aldous Huxley associated the numinous with the psychedelic drug experience in his Doors of Perception.

During seven weeks at Sawmills Studio on the River Fowey in Golant, Cornwall, four young men in the band Verve (singer Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe were only 21 years old) recorded their debut album with producer John Leckie, who had previously worked as an audio engineer for Pink Floyd in the 1970s. These seven weeks of recording resulted in 10 tracks that are deeply numinous and often oceanic. This is also reflected in the album’s title, A Storm in Heaven. The album art by Brian Cannon completely summarizes the album’s mission statement, a front cover with a womb like cave and a figure of rebirth and a back cover with an old man giving a peace sign in a cemetery. A Storm in Heaven was released June 21, 1993, back when the band was just Verve and not The Verve, and four years before releasing the very different sounding hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” one of the defining songs of the ’90s. A Storm in Heaven stood apart from other albums that decade (and subsequent albums in the band’s discography) because of Nick McCabe’s guitar soundscapes.

“Star Sail” is a mind blowing opening song, with bassist Simon Jones and the band’s friend Mark Corley on choral background vocals while Ashcroft sings from a God’s eye point of view (“throwing stones from the stars on your mixed up world”) and McCabe’s space rock guitar soars. According to McCabe, the celestial textures of “Star Sail” were from the Eventide 3000, what he described as the “best effects box ever made.” “Slide Away” is sculpted from Jones’ opening bass groove while McCabe’s guitar flies into Ashcroft’s “night skies.” “Already There” is the album’s cosmic centerpiece, Peter Salisbury’s subtle tribal tom percussion and the lyrics at their most poetic (“If trees cut stars and eyes to heaven/I’ll bend them back and bend them again”), while McCabe’s Alesis Quadraverb effects on his guitar sound like a harp submerged underground and underwater. In a conversation with me, McCabe describes “Beautiful Mind” as “Van Gogh’s Starry Night contained in a snow globe.” McCabe used a Chorus Strings 2 effects patch on his guitar and a Solid State Bass Amp with “graphic eq tweak for sparkle.” McCabe says he “was very stoned, lots of red wine” and that the guitar on this track “seemed about four miles deep.”

The first four songs on A Storm in Heaven guide the listener on a mystical voyage. The album changes with the climax, the last track on the first side, “The Sun, The Sea.” McCabe exclaims that he was “power tripping with a Mesa Boogie Mark III!” The delicate, ethereal guitar of the first four tracks is now a hurricane accompanied by a free jazz freakout horn section.

The album’s sequencing is superb as there is an instrumental and lyrical shift on the second side. “Virtual World” has a spare, stark introduction that differs completely from the more psychedelic songs on the first side. After the high, the come down. All of the songs on the second side (with the exception of the last minute appended rock single “Blue”) had acoustic versions, as well, the second side of the album being a return to earth after the otherworldly explorations of the first side. “Virtual World” is Ashcroft’s contemplation of death (“I can see it now, the hearse”) while Yvette Lacey’s flute lightens the melancholy mood. The acoustic version of “Virtual World” (featured in the 2016 collector’s deluxe reissue) is graveyard blues, deeply haunting slide guitar by McCabe—he says he used the Crystal Echoes effect on the Eventide 3000 to enhance the ghostly vibes.

“Make It ‘Till Monday” is a meditation by Ashcroft about surviving a drug trip over a weekend (“another Friday night waiting for a revelation, I can see a million faces in the condensation”), McCabe’s guitar and keyboard visualizing these misty vapors. The acoustic version is early morning foggy folk. “Blue” continues the drug motif with a violent, wild story about the dark side of ecstasy, the power of the track is Salisbury’s backwards drum loops. “Butterfly” was, similar to “Virtual World,” a late night improvisation, the Kick Horns (from “The Sun, The Sea”) making another appearance and adding to the tempestuous atmosphere. The closing track, “See You in the Next One” is a plaintive, poignant song (possibly written from Ashcroft’s mother’s perspective to Ashcroft’s father who died young when Ashcroft was only 11 years old), the accordion and piano are nostalgic and plangent. “May be a lifetime before I see you again.”

I first heard A Storm in Heaven at the age of 16. My childhood best friend had tragically drowned at the age of 15 that summer. A Storm in Heaven spoke to my soul during this sad time. I met Nick McCabe and thanked him in person for his music the 10th anniversary of my friend’s death. I will never forget hearing the album on my headphones during my summer wanderings through Cornwall and Wales. The album saved my life at the end of my 20s when I was in a deep depression. I will never forget hearing the album on my headphones as I stargazed in the spring in the Gila Wilderness or now in my 30s sharing it this year with my international students at United World College in New Mexico, my teenage students now the same age as I was when I first heard this masterpiece, all of us staring out of the classroom windows at the swirling snow.

When I am at my darkest depths, Ashcroft’s lyrics and McCabe’s music enlighten and illuminate me. “You can do anything you want to/All you got to do is try,” Ashcroft sings in “Already There.” “I thought the best days had left me/My best years had left me behind/Then I watched them come back/If my skin looks tired and old from living/I’ll turn right back and live it again/ I’ll be hearing music ‘till the day I die.”

A Storm in Heaven is a masterpiece, still as mesmerizing 30 years later as it was when it was first released.