Friday, September 12, 2014
Twin Atlantic are, after all, one of those bands that have spent their short careers trying to escape their tag as “the band you’ll either love or hate” and now with Great Divide they take one more step towards eradicating the reasons for it.
The Glasgow band first burst into our collective conscious with a promising, noisome EP, and a gritty, wildly energetic 8-track mini-album, Vivarium. Ears pricked up and, with a future marked out as “alternative rock” icons, the future seemed bright. However, that all changed a couple of years back when they cried foul, claiming their music thus far wasn’t representative of their true selves.
What followed was a sugary full debut album, Free, that softened their impact. With it they had wound up the production levels, and produced a poppier, far less antagonistic record. What the disparity between the releases showed is that, despite their seemingly bottomless talent for writing memorable hooks, they had a slight problem with balance. This inherent desire of theirs for meting out raw power would inevitably excite their more fanatical subverts, yet their love of for the soft touch of an emotion-soaked ballad would naturally appeal to that wider audience they so clearly craved.
The album title here, Great Divide, describes this dilemma and represents their latest crack at bringing the two clashing styles together. Their ballads drive harder here than before and their rockers aren’t as overtly chaotic. There is no doubt that producer Gil Norton, who they’ve stuck with despite his meddlesome overworking of their last album, has allowed the music to breathe a little more. There’s still evidence of his penchant for a multi-layered, more-rounded mainstream sound (even the band’s feedback sounds more like a yawn than a scrawl), but there’s far less intrusion upon Sam McTrusty’s unique vocals than before - and that is a huge relief.
There is no doubting the fact that McTrusty’s rich, thick Glaswegian brogue is a major point of interest, and a defining one at that. There’s such an element of pomp and circumstance in his delivery that it can’t help but work like the aforementioned yeast paste on those who hear it. Virtually unique, it’s something to obsess over or something to run from. Yet when combined with a series of cutting lyrics or a raging crescendo it can be enough to initiate goosebumps and shivers.
On the subject of lyricism, he’s still churning out thrillingly mad lines such as “I put the sun in an elevator and took you to my home / I’m still living on a ladder from the sky to the floor” from “Heart And Soul”. There are some very dubious ones too though. Take “It pulls me back next to the stereo / On the top floor of my grandparents’ home” from “Be A Kid” - that’s one crammed and mangled couplet right there.
Written whilst on tour, the band have drawn deep on all that latent crowd energy to produce a crop of stunning, colour-soaked tracks. Top-heavy, the album initially fires out grooves like confetti with “Heart And Soul”, “Hold On” and “Fall Into The Party” making their mark. Dig deeper into the record and you could make a case for the bouncy “I Am An Animal” and the grunge-influenced “Cell Mate” being up there with the best too, despite all the basic repetition and singalong tripe they attempt to weld to the visceral builds.
So much else though just crashes and burns. All too often the tracks kick off well but have no end product and there is a disappointing over-reliance on soporific, saccharine melodic filler. You can listen to tracks like “Oceans”, “Why Won’t We Change?” or the bass-heavy “Actions That Echo” until the cows come home and you won’t recall a single note, let alone a lyric. It’s most certainly not the case for all the soft-hearted numbers. They absolutely light up the sky with “Brothers And Sisters”, a big emotional pop power ballad with candied hooks and bursts of rampant energy that’ll glue itself to your brain until you find yourself humming it in the most inappropriate of places.
What all this boils down to is the fact that Twin Atlantic’s early material sounded fresh, vital and even a little fragile. Sure it had that divisive quality, but these latest releases (to borrow another well-worn food-related cliché) are a different kettle of fish. Great Divide is a definite step up from the flab of Free, blowing out its cheeks impressively hard at first but it does run out of puff all too quickly. It, too, is patchy in quality, formulaic in nature and retains an unforgivable disingenuous quality. If the band do, indeed, continue to fiddle, homogenize and filter their raw material in this manner, they may never quite achieve record-breaking sales, but they will have one heck of a greatest hits package to dine out on.
Craftily divided into sections, each offering something interesting to focus upon, the album oozes star quality. Tracks 1 through 3 offer quick-change chord structures that ripple their way along a driving underscore which harries and hurries you along. Opener "High Class Woman" has a hard, rock-punching edge about it with fierce licks and strong hooks, whilst the excellent, groove-laden "Ain't No Change" and "Jupiter", with its mind-expanding middle-eight, ride along bluesier, walls of guitar fuzz that get you deep in the gut.
Tracks 4 through 6 mark out a welcome change of pace which brings the stunning Joplin-esque vocal of Elin Larsen to the forefront. Strong without being butch, her delivery has a sweet, rasping quality, plenty of range and a fine grasp of when to stress a lyric and when not to. So whilst the flawed yet elegiac, slide guitar number "River" stands out proudest of all, sashaying along as she enunciates each vowel, it is the friskier, slow-quick-slow rhythm and cosmic power of "Black Smoke" which speaks most clearly to the heart as well as the soul. Tracks 7-9 begins the steady build back up to speed with the swing of "Devil Man" bringing some much needed fire, "Astralplane" loading up on blues, and Chubby Checker-cover "Gypsy" punching every majestic note out with joyous delight. Throughout these and into the album closer, the simple sustained sweeps of retro kingpins Graveyard (who they share a producer with) show their face placing that chronological marker upon the Swedish quartet.
Offering something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, whatever your taste, this is an impressive debut that should, by all accounts, marry itself to your very marrow. I thought I had a cold, black heart, but suddenly I can feel the damn thing beating. I think I'm falling for Blues Pills... and hard.
It’s no surprise then to discover that the PR blurb professes this to be a thematic work exploring “the power of cold, its northern and Antarctic nature, and the grandeur of eternal winter”. That thought is drilled home by the album inlay of snapshots of sailors fighting raging seas and glacial locations. Obviously, it’s something of a disappointment then to discover the music feeling so luke-warm. The seemingly endless, subtly shifting synth backdrops are austere in tone but the string work is rich, plump and vibrant and the drums patter along at an untaxing, gentile pace.
Swimming in the same post-metal waters as bands like Russian Circles, Isis and Red Sparowes, Beloe Bezmolvie (or White Silence) opens up with “Fordevind”, a wave-battering crush that confusingly shares its space with calm waters and soft surf. There’s also something enigmatically graceful about the 11-minute “Ledjanoj Shtrom…”. From an opening, almost balletic, emotive riff to the 3-minute directionless, warbled ending the whole ensemble mimics the piece-by-piece joyful storytelling of Russian Circles when their theme demands that they be venturing into the dark, forbidding spaces of Cult Of Luna.
Wonderfully, just as you think the album has run adrift, the wreck breaks on these twin glacial outcrops – the blunt death metal of “Svincovo-Serye Oblaka…” and the doomy “Drejfujushhie V Tumane Ajsbergi…” Here, the beast finally roars and beneath all the clamouring, the crafty score finally reveals its blackened soul.
It’s intriguing that Sterny Lda seem to have no problem with emotion when it comes to dishing out the hard and fast tracks – “Beskrajnie Snezhyne…” and “Soprovtilenie…” are both songs that successfully kick up a storm. However, when they need to apply a more delicate touch to extract a different emotion they do struggle – You’d hope that conveying the psychological torment of the bleak and the endless wastelands of the Artic might be something to get your teeth into, yet “Holod Zemli” is frustratingly a somewhat toneless, sluggish and ultimately hollow attempt when compared alongside that of others.
Some good, some bad and something of a sheep in wolf’s clothing then, but ignore the theme, look deeper and you’ll still discover plenty to get your teeth into.