The Verve: A Storm In Heaven
A Storm In Heaven (Virgin, 1993)
The Verve were a British band that were at the outset lumped into the shoegaze circle. They had all of the trappings of shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine--a strong reliance on guitar effects and other electronic devices that could alter the sound of the traditional rock instruments. The Verve, however, had something which made them superior. They had a wider range of influences. These influences (especially Krautrock) made them look to the stars rather than to their shoes and set them apart from the alternative music of their time.
Like the Hendrix Experience or Floyd, the Verve had a master guitarist as their epicenter--Nick McCabe. Rather than merely burying his guitar under studio generated noise as did Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine or countless other shoegazers, McCabe spent less time in simply hiding the guitar under layers of sounds and more time doing what was the hallmark of all great psychedelic music--bending the notes in new ways. David Gilmour is still renowned not because of his effects arsenal or technical proficiency but simply because of the slow, ponderous emotion that he could wring out of a few simple notes. Like Gilmour, McCabe did not focus on the riff or on noise, but on what can only be termed "washes" of sound that paint the backdrop of the songs while the rhythm section (the bass/drums) do what they do best--keep rhythm.
Another thing which set the Verve's debut LP A Storm in Heaven apart from their peers was, of course, their total defiance of genre. The Verve painted their songs not only with misty and intoxicating guitar washes but also with a breathtaking and inspiring array of various instruments, such as saxophones, trumpets, and flutes, which attested to their experimentation not only with jazz fusion but with atmosphere, in general.
A Storm in Heaven has a Zen/Taoist-tinged sense of beauty illustrated by the cavernous guitar of Nick McCabe, as well as the album art: 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.
The first track on A Storm in Heaven, "Star Sail", establishes a pattern which recurs throughout the album--what can only be described in the analogies of darkness and illumination, silences and awakenings, oceanic rising and falling, journeys through inner and outer space.
With this first awe-inspiring track, the Verve create a foundation for the entire album which can be discerned in the paradoxical quality of the album's title: a blurring of the lines between chaos and cosmos, between yin and yang, between a rock-solid rhythm section and an oceanic guitar of drifts and squalls. And lost in the center of this vortex is Richard Ashcroft.
A burst of distortion tapers off into sonorous distance. The guitar then begins a melody with ringing notes that becomes doubled after echo and delay. The bass and drums are thrumming a steady beat like the buildup to a rocket launch. The rhythm opens into a wider vista and a wordless mantric "ahhhh" wells up out of this brief interval, tunneling skyward. Another rhythm is opened up--no, exploded--by the reemergence of the reverb soaked guitar, illuminating the darkness of space as the rocket ship hurtles into the void.
"Hello, it's me, it's me, calling out, I can't see you/Hello, it's me, crying out, crying out, are you there?" asks lead singer Ashcroft pleadingly, wandering adrift in this starry limbo.
"I've been calling home for 20 years and in that time I heard the screams rebound to me while you were making history," Ashcroft later declares. Then he yells in his mystical madness, "I could see the fires!" McCabe's guitar captures that image in bold, surging space-rock glory, showering meteoric sparks in spiraling arcs. The song reclaims its original chiming melody and then fades into silence.
It is only on songs like "Slide Away" and "Blue" that the rhythm section is a stronger force, pulling the melodies back to earth as they dare like Icarus to kiss the sky. "Slide Away" opens on Simon Jones' sculpted, icy bass groove that remains the song's focal point as Nick McCabe once again takes off on airy, cloud borne expeditions which mirror Ashcroft's eye-opening epiphanies of beauty: "I was thinking maybe we could go outside/Let the night sky cool your foolish pride/Don't you feel alive?/These are your times and our highs".
It is drummer Pete Salisbury who is the driving force of "Blue" as his cymbals are fed through a backwards tape loop which, in all of its
psyched-out fuzz, keeps a relentless beat that firmly grounds the song in Ashcroft's grimy city streets and references to Ecstasy, a murder and the wildest party you never remembered: "Conceived in a chrome dream/I was a crease in the shirt that this world wears" Ashcroft confesses in his rock'n'roll rebel swagger and splendor. "Blue, I've got a question every time I hold you/Yeah, Blue, I've got a question every time I swallow you it's true".
The album is also constructed like the best of classic vinyl. The first side of the album (the first five tracks) is a journey through outer space (tracks 1 and 2) and inner space (tracks 3 and 4)--it is the "Heaven" of the album's title. Tracks 3 and 4, in particular, convey the most blissed out depths of the album's sound.
"Already There" is the album's hidden highlight. This track best encapsulates the incredible and mesmerizing pattern of alternating spaces of silence with awakenings of consciousness. The song glides in and unfurls out of quiet darkness as McCabe's guitar sends out equal parts shadowy and shimmering echoes that resemble a harp submerged underground or underwater. The subtle tapping of Pete Salisbury on drums slowly leads the traveling passenger on the Stygian bark into the light.
"Seen it all I'm already there" Ashcroft intones in a mysterious and ghostly voice. "Save your books and your pills/I don't need them I'm there," Ashcroft repeats as the tone of McCabe's scintillating guitar slowly hums in expanding glows.
"I thought the best days had left me/My best years had left me behind," Ashcroft ruminates in wistfulness and nostalgia. "Then I watched them come back," he reveals and the fragile monochrome filigrees are shattered into jagged jewelled fragments.
Then Ashcroft truly gets into the mystic: "If 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/You better pray when the music stops/And you're left alone in your mind/I'll be hearing music 'till the day I die". The guitar shifts into a higher plane as the intrepid traveler ascends for a moment into the shining presence.
"Then I heard it turn off," Ashcroft blazes amidst the trance. The guitar drops into earthbound power chords which drown Ashcroft's voice as he struggles to emerge from his memories of ancestors and the spirit world: "I swear I heard the screams/And all the wild eyes/All the wild eyes know what I mean/They're scared they've lost their dream/They press down on me".
"You know I thought I was there," he admits in clarity as darkness falls once more. "Hello, high, are you?/Yes, well that explains it/Oh you were walking round like some kind of angel/You were walking round like some kind of angel/Hello, high, are you?/Yes, well that explains it/That explains it".
"Beautiful Mind" finds the listener in the cave which adorns the album's cover. Everything is more subdued now as shivering reverberations resound through the peaceful stillness. Ashcroft muses once more upon moving back home and about continuing his quest for mind and spirit in the heavens or simply returning to earth and to the body. The song drifts towards waking life but remains in the womb of sleep.
"The Sun, The Sea" is the most powerful track on the entire album and it closes the first side of the album with a definite answer to the mind/body question. The body and earth have reclaimed their son. "It amazes me how I broke free/And got brought back in".
In the midst of a song of secret love and desire, Ashcroft becomes a seer who through a systematic derangement of the senses finds the meaning of life in his lover who has nicknamed him after their unity (and ostensibly a Rimbaud poem).
Tidal waves of feedback and frenzied, turbulent riffs crash down in tempests amidst a fiery sun that burns so brightly that the lead singer goes blind as he searches for a woman's outstretched naked body on his bedroom floor. Then comes a climactic orgasm, a paroxysm of fury and euphoria as Ashcroft holds to the mast of his capsized raft upon the ocean and chants: "Hold on now/Hold on now/Here it comes/Here it comes..." and trails off as the guitar has become not a wall of sound but a hurricane of sound that descends upon him into the abyss. The swell from the speakers is accompanied by raving saxophones that wail out a swooping and diving free jazz air raid that perfectly complements the multi-layered typhoon guitars.
"Virtual World" is, of course, the return to earth and to the "real" world on the second side of the album. Ashcroft (and the band) have, indeed, returned home and it is twilight, that ambiguous time between night and dawn, as fog shrouds the landscape. "See the water break my hand/No one knows my name/I'm not in demand", Ashcroft begins in a near whisper that has touches of melancholy and resignation. Ashcroft reflects upon not only his return home and his return to earth, but also broods over the machinations of relationships and of the record/music industry, and finally society, in general. His contemplations are not vitriolic nor satirical, they are merely meditations in the "dirty half-light where time means nothing at all". Flutes enter the crystalline dreamscape, fluttering and trembling like a winter morning breeze beckoning at the curtains of a half-open window (or a half-open mind) as the grayness of daybreak enters.
"Make It Till Monday" follows perfectly and is the shortest song on the entire album, acting more as an atmospheric interlude as the wanderer (as well as the listener) rubs the sleep from his eyes and wipes the steam from his home and car window to travel back into the world of his home town. Except things have changed.
"Hey my friend are we gonna make it till Monday?/Another Friday night waiting for a revelation/I can see a million faces in the condensation"
The trippy moods of sensual and passionate catharsis which would have accompanied these lyrics on the first side of the album have now been restrained by a cerebral detachment that is both hypnotic and melancholy.
"Butterfly" is the storm in heaven. It can only be described in elemental or meteorological terms: gusts of wind and rain, flashes of thunder and lightning, rolling vapors. Guitars are layered atop one another and build and build until the clouds burst. The wanderer (and the listener) are caught out in the weather as maddening saxophones and trumpets freeze the downpour into hail, ice, and snow which plummet in a blizzard upon the lost soul as he struggles to find his way back home.
Finally "See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time)" is the calm after the storm, the shelter from the storm. It is bittersweet and intimate as a reverbed acoustic guitar and piano leave glistening tears like rain on the windowpane. They also bring a sigh to the listener as the end of the journey has been reached. There is a sense of closure as Ashcroft plaintively and earnestly sings from his melancholy and childlike view: "Eyes they open wide/I like the way it was/Hate the way it is now". When the storm has passed, heaven can be seen again (in a new relationship or love, in the next phase of one's life, or in the next life itself). -Graveyard Poet