Witness - Before the Calm
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.
“So kick the dust from your heels before you enter this place / There must be no outside influences in here.”
At my lowest, I could have killed myself during my first year at university. I certainly threatened to kill someone else. Set him on fire, as I remember. I told him in a letter that I stuck to his door at 4am after I’d been up all night. I remember another night, picking glass out of an idiot’s shredded palm as the days changed. It was hellish, that year. I didn’t know who I was. I read American Psycho that summer after it was over and identified with Bateman.
I don’t revisit Before the Calm very often because… the CDs on that side of the room are nearer to the floor… the spine is dark and does not attract attention… I’m scared of how it makes me feel. I don’t use music as emotional batteries and don’t store memories or emotions in compact discs or vinyl grooves. Or at least I try not to. I don’t want to spoil it. It’s about the point of contact.
Before the Calm doesn’t take me back so much… I briefly met lead singer Gerard Starkie once at a gig, they were supporting someone else and I said to him in the bar that his album had “got me through the summer.” Then I walked away because I’ve never felt comfortable talking to people who’ve made me cry. It’s not that it takes me back. It’s that it, on its own in and of itself, is one of the saddest, most deeply etched records I’ve ever heard.
The music press at the time said “Verve, REM” but that’s off the mark. Before the Calm is… the starkest, coldest, warmest, most haunted, most beautiful collection of songs to ever venture from the North West of England, despite what popular opinion may suggest. I defy anyone to listen to it, alone and lonely too, and not feel reduced.
The bass rolls in “Heirloom” are enough to scar your heart and drag tears out of your eyes on their own. Add in the slow scrapes of slide guitar and the sudden eruptions, the dancing piano that waltzes a moment and then dies, falters, elation a hint lodged somewhere in a memory of the past that forms a hope for the future. “I’ve ploughed the dirt with my fingers…”
Ray Chan’s guitar is uniformly excellent, whether firing taut riffs like on “Audition” or spiraling audacious, heart-rending squalls of slide and feedback on “Freezing Over Morning.” Gerard Starkie’s vocals… his lyrics. At times he’s too much to stand. “Into the womb / Crawl into the womb again / And don’t look behind you” uttered with aged sadness and the hope that comes only when you hit the very bottom of your consciousness. The rhythm section can play too.
“They get some, don’t they? / With their dirty hands / Fuck-up your records…”
The production is intimate to the point of claustrophobia. They recorded it beneath a derelict chip shop, if I recall. The whole thing is slow. Even the short, sharp songs like “Scars” and “Hijacker.” “So Far Gone” is almost unbearably tepid but still compelling, like dead water, like paperback books left outside in winter, sodden, frozen, made fat by moisture, masticated by the wind and trodden, all the words gone, melted, corrupted, however beautiful.
Before the Calm received glowing reviews on its release, but only something like 10,000 people bought it. I would wager that each and every one loved it, as much as one can love something so… entrenched in sadness. I’d listen to it more often, but I can’t.