Verve - A Storm In Heaven
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
"I’ll be hearing music till the day I die...”
Four psychedelic young things, eyes wide, minds wider, believing they could fly, and maybe for a while they could, Verve (the definite article came later, after a legal tussle with the jazz label) stormed out of Wigan in the early ‘90’s amidst a haze of pharmaceuticals, Krautrock and huge walls of shimmering, hallucinogenic guitar effects, barely into their twenties and yet somehow simultaneously naïve and wise, a wisdom attained through youth, through excess, through forcing your mind open with drugs so you can see it all, hear it all, feel it all, together and instantaneous... This is the sound of four young men trying to experience the myriad vagaries of the whole wide world all at once in a few short moments. They fail, of course, but how else could it be?
The debut single saw them compared to The Stone Roses, a 4-minute psychedelic stomp through a tune about getting in a car with an older woman and driving into the sunset, but they blew those neo-baggy tags away with the b-sides and the next two singles; spacey, Doors-meets-Can jams that floated and wavered and sometimes exploded in wave upon wave of layered, crazed, psychedelic noise. Their aspirations were colossal, their limitations all too apparent – the songs, while often awesome, were largely shapeless jams, youth untamed and unbound, no one there to nod a sagely head and say “no”, no svengali, no guide, no rules. How on earth were these raging, crazy, shamanic young fools ever to do something as structured and regulated as record an album?
Welcome John Leckie, producer of The Stone Roses’ seminal debut album, engineer on Dark Side Of The Moon, the man who would transform Radiohead from awkward parochial nobodies with one fluke hit into something approaching brilliant, mentor and master, shaper of talent into quantifiable genius time and again. He looks like a wizard. Verve went into the studio with half a dozen riffs, half a dozen half-baked lyrics and a thousand ideas of ways to reach the sky. Somehow, Leckie managed to seize the controls and apply the necessary degree of restraint and maturity, guiding the band almost back down to earth when they threatened to fly too close to the sun. Leckie’s influence is palpable, and the results are fantastic where without his guiding hand they could so easily have been infuriating.
Seizing on the shoegazer aesthetic and imbuing a lifeless, nervous but often beautiful genre with energy, vitality and madness, Verve took their sound to a higher level, advancing beyond the spacey, never-ending jams of their early singles into much more sophisticated and effectively psychedelic territory. No longer did they need to stick bells and wafty atmospherics over everything in the mix to make it seem hallucinatory; the intuitive, mesmeric space-rock of the band was now enough on its own. The guitars of Nick McCabe sounding like wind, like trains, like satellites, like fucked-up television sets, like anything but guitars; a pulsing, reverb-saturated body of noise that he shook, stroked, kissed and beat out of an instrument that in the hands of so many others is rendered so inane and so predictable. Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury laid down grooves that were at one moment fluid and ethereal, at the next fearsome and insistent, guy-ropes tethering McCabe’s freeform inspiration to a rhythmic basis that was as close to structure as Verve could get. In the midst of this maelstrom was Richard Ashcroft, blissed-out and near incoherent, pitching himself somewhere between Jim Morrison and the star child from Kubrick’s 2001, finding that space where the meaningless and vague becomes profound and all-encompassing, strangeness like “it trees cut stars and eyes to heaven / I'll bend them back and bend them again / if my skin looks tired and old from living / I'll turn right back and live it again...” which assumes, entrenched in this wash of sound, in this kaleidoscope of noise, this synaesthesia, some kind of truth and purity, however vapid and nonsensical it may seem when caught on paper.
And then there are the songs, the songs. What songs? Verve shied away from songs, from predictability. McCabe couldn’t and wouldn’t play anything twice, Jones and Salisbury cared not for anything outside of the groove, and Ashcroft was still too young, too wild and too free to have slipped into the turgid, earnest singer-songwriter trap of his later career. Verve managed two ‘songs’ on the whole album, the Oasis-predicting “Slide Away” and the psychedelic murder vibe of “Blue”, and away from those two was ambiguity, improvisation, drifting passages of sound rooted somewhere between, what? Jazz? Prog? Psychedelia? “The Sun, The Sea” is raging, storming, elemental rock coupled with a honking jazz horn coda, “Make it Till Monday” a languid, insouciant kiss of “inner frustrations” and a “million faces in the condensation”... A Storm In Heaven comes from the same place as Spirit Of Eden or In A Silent Way or Loveless or Astral Weeks or any other weird record that twists itself around your mind and captivates you. Eyes wide, minds wider.