Editor's Rating

9
SONIC CATHEDRAL

IF YOU’RE like me, a proper old-skool, never really got grunge actually thank you very much, saw ‘em nearly all shoegazer, you’d have been absolutely delighted that day back in winter 2014 when Ride announced they were reforming for a series of dates (it wasn’t long previous that I’d been discussing with my then entertainments editor what I wouldn’t give to hear “Leave Them All Behind” live again – some of the suggestions mooted may have been surgical but thankfully, in their graciousness, the lads from OX4 have yet to exercise that option).

There was, y’know, unfinished business, muchly. The deleted-after-a-week Tarantula was an ignominious end to a band who could really soar and take us with them.

You’ll have been absolutely bloody made up then, when “Charm Assault” debuted on the Steve Lamacq show; pleased as bloody punch when Weather Diaries and This Is Not A Safe Place were such cracking albums.

And singer-guitarist Andy Bell has been so busy in recent times in other ways. You can tell he’s channelling the muse these past two years. There was his electronica alter-ego GLOK, in which guise he’s released one very fine record in Dissident; an equally fine remixes set of the former, which we reviewed here and during which we noted it was pretty much “the perfect music to skin up to at a rave at an observatory”; there’s even one eye-wateringly covetable 7” for Sonic Cathedral’s Singles Club, “Plastic Bag”/”Commune”; which: oof, pricey. 

And it’s for Sonic Cathedral that the muse has directed Andy to bestow his latest sonic gifts, The View From Halfway Down, a full solo album. I’m pretty excited, expectant; you?

It’s been a record brought about a series of serendipitous nudges. Like any creative, Andy’s had demos, notebooks, part-ideas never fully realised, with a velleity to return to them.

Serendipitous spur, part the first: the death of David Bowie, more than four years ago already – a shockwave through global music, affecting us pretty much all: this loss led to Andy taking stock and deciding maybe these songs needed a life. He began to record them with former Beady Eye colleague Jem – and then the Ride live reunion became a proper full-blown thing in its own right. 

Serendipitous spur, part the second: the ‘rona. Let’s allow Andy to explain: “I’ve always wanted to make a solo album. I’ve always said I would do it, although I never imagined it happening like, or sounding like, this one does. 

“I’d been sitting on this pile of almost-finished tracks, along with all the other hundreds of ideas that had fallen by the wayside since I’ve been making music. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to find a way to present it to the world.”

And part the third: Andy’s 7” for the Sonic Cathedral Singles Club. Standard bearers for the ‘gaze through lean years when eyes were dazzled by other forms, they ain’t half brought us some great music. One vowel-free word for you: bdrmm. Sonic Cathedral would prove a tailor-made fit for the project.

Oh come, I’m anxious to get stuck in too; let’s listen.

The album announcement came on August 11th, Andy’s 50th, with a video drop for “Love Comes In Waves”: we took a look then, but to save wear to your preferred click-out finger we’ve brought it over here so you can watch it again. It’s down below there, and it’s just the sort of opener an album needs: twelve-strings chime like a glorious British mod-psych 7” circa late summer ’67; they rush us through acid-filtered summer fields. “Love comes in waves / Psychedelic waves”, Andy sings, and it’s a euphoric surge of a tune, that crisp twin-string riff calling The Byrds. Is that Andy we see resplendent in kaftan and some home-fashioned space helmet, a persona to transport us deeper in guitar melodicism?

“Indica” – the genus of cannabis. Is that a fair fair indicator of a title? Yeah. Tronica swirls about the place like ball lightning, swooping in and out of a steady bass figure coupled with a lovely, loose-fit lope of a break. Think, actually, “Tellin’ Stories”, I reckon. Andy is buried deep, backward-masked, you realise as you push through the verdancy of sequencer fizz and fuzz seeking meaning. A pretty organ shows the way. You’ll smile lazily and contentedly as it presses lots of the right buttons. It’s one of those tracks you’ll hurry to drop back at the start before it’s even finished, such a warm, trippy banger is it.

“Ghost Tones” chimes and finger-picks its way to your stoned heart. It’s an autumnal baroque-pop instrumental; very British; Bert Jansch with someone like (the British) Kaleidoscope or maybe SF Sorrow-era The Pretty Things. 

You awake from a luscious dusk dream to the pert beats of “Skywalker”, a meandering riff tugging at your chest with that correct dose of melodic yearn. The guitars downstroke for that mod pulse. It breaks down to a droning six-string ring around which Moogs swirl, and you can see the declared Spacemen 3 influence, wholly in a genius way. If this had come out as a single from Going Blank Again and/or, at a stretch, Recurring, you could well believe it. British guitar pop brilliance with leftfield edges to fire your cerebellum; hasn’t that always been Andy’s great strength? That brilliant drone ring sticks around and makes itself at home for a cracking coda.

“Aubrey Gladlands Drywell” – an intriguing title this; composite or Victorian headstone? – wigs out. It’s British psych in the moment where prog reared its ungrateful head, but shorn of the technical indulgence and biggin’ up the feels. Weirdly, you might even catch a little scent of Focus in those astral chords. It’s a succinct fuzz jam, but it wants your heart. Your girlfriend will like it. 

On “Cherry Cola” a baggy lope and an addictive, brushed percussion shuffle bump into a British folk guitar with an Island pink-rim aesthetic; decide they could get along together, find a groove for Andy to free-associate over, a sorta Beta Band-meets-“I Am The Walrus”-meets-John Martyn thing rolling out over you. 

The near-seven minutes of “I Was Alone” sees Andy at his most unadorned so far on this set. He’s in the stark light here, rather than part-hidden behind spinning psychedelic colour wheels. It approaches balladry status with a woozy atmosphere; the guitars have a Jason Pierce tremolo rattle, there’s a little off-kilter tronica melody which seems just a microtone deliberately off-pitch, to prick your senses. You remember what a sweet vocal tone Andy has, organ warmth advancing through soft wordless harmony. 

“Heat Haze on Weyland Road” – Headington, OX3, psychogeography fans – veers right over towards GLOK. A mid-paced, minor-toned bass riff – very 80s’ Peel, if taken in its own right – quickly submits to banks of tronica. Traffic’s moving slow. Hot washes of sound make the air thick. It’s nearly cloudless above, where those little orbs of retrotronica play free. There’s a sax weaving and interjecting, for melancholy; sequencer chatter for that sticky tarmac trundle, ring road architecture peeling past. It’s fetching you back home, but it’s in no rush. Neither are you.

Many singer-songwriters from big bands let it all hang out a little when they escape the clutches of their musical parent. “This is my art, ” they’ll proclaim; “mine.” And they’ll give voice to a few half-decent tunes and maybe that country-calypso number they’ve had knocking around on a TDK for y’know, years. For kicks. Cos my art is my art.

Andy Bell’s The View From Halfway Down is nothing of that ilk. By partway through “Heat Haze on Weyland Road”, the final of the eight tracks here, and although pretty eclectic in its stylistic reach, you realise he really hasn’t put a foot wrong throughout – not for a moment. There’s motorik, mod pop, psych-folk, electronica, Madchester touches, sometimes even all of the above, interwoven with each other within one tune – and it’s all cohesive.

It’s pretty, it’s trippy, it’s gonna be right up there in the end-of-year lists. Essential and fun and exploratory.

Andy Bell’s The View From Halfway Down will be released by Sonic Cathedral on October 9th on digital, CD and vinyl formats. To order your copy, visit the Sonic Cathedral shop or Andy’s Bandcamp page.