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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Album Review: North Atlantic Oscillation – Fog Electric

Somewhere in between the two land masses of Iceland and the Azores, far out to sea, there is a series of fluctuations in air pressure which kick-start a phenomenon known as the North Atlantic Oscillation. It dictates the strength and direction of storms across the surrounding areas and is, naturally, of great interest to European weather girls and boys (or, more obtusely, meteorologists). Why you’d want to name your band after this oddity is beyond me, but at least now you can point at the telly when you spot rubbish weather combined with westerly winds and say “Ooh, look, that’ll be the NAO” and all your chums will be impressed.

When I first encountered this Edinburgh duo (they expand to a quartet for gigs), between the releases of their Callsigns EP and their debut Grappling Hooks, they had rallying hook-laden rock bursting forth from upbeat electronica. Quite how they got from that outstanding and giddying introduction to this soft-hearted, ambient psych-cum-prog shoegazing is a puzzler. But here we are all the same. The busy re-structuring with multiple instruments in action, sometimes all at once, combined with Tony Doogan (Super Furry Animals, Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian)’s tight, dynamic production has left the already-hazy, multi-layered vocals relegated somewhat – and that’s a shame.

The front-end of Fog Electric is most startling, as peeking softly through the backwash from the determined force of ‘Soft Coda’, the tracks ‘Chirality’ and ‘Mirador’ emerge like two pieces of rotting driftwood. With their synth sweeps, high-pitched vocals and twinkly, jazzy washes, memories are triggered of some of the quirkier tracks by those artsy, twee ’90s pop-rock bands like Teenage Fanclub, Jellyfish and Scritti Politti. But nothing can quite prepare you for the atrocity that is ‘Empire Waste’. Those almost gentle beginnings and endings are blown away by thoughtlessly tacky programmed beats as the eloquent vocal is stuffed through the gaping maw of some vast computer, emerging as a volley of robotic bleatings.

Yet the white flag is spared as ‘Savage With Barometer’ rises above its scarred, ever-present soundscape to wrap a meaty bassline around a cajoling set of cymbals, and brush a determined eloquence onto the surface of the piece. ‘Expert With Altimeter’, with its slow build to something more instantly recognisable (think E.L.O. meets Editors) follows suit with 4-4 beats, rock rushes and peaked vocal harmonies. Then, treading gently down once more to the shore to stand in the ebbing surf, the piano-led drift of ‘The Receiver’ and the sublime acoustic guitar backing of ‘Downhill’ leave us becalmed; contemplative once more.

Even though the album’s subject matter, according to singer Sam Healy, concentrates on “searching for meaning in a scientific, post-religious world”, the oceanic theme is ever-present, following the band through the lyrics, album and song titles. It proves that despite this new injection of chaos, they are still following the same compass-bearing in their heads. Yet everything about this album feels as if it contradicts this. Even the little programmed gimmicks – a vinyl pickup rip here, a spot of tinnitus-inducing warble there, all of merely passing interest – mostly seem disconnected from the music.

It’s been a bold effort by the band to step out of their comfort zone and they should be applauded for scoring one or two broadside hits, but there are far too many disappointing splashes for us to realistically believe that they didn’t get too self-absorbed in their project and, consequently, a little bit carried away with themselves. Maybe next time out, they’ll aim for a sunnier destination we can all reach and, at last, we’ll be able to enjoy a share of their treasure booty.

Also online @ TLOBF
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