Review Summary: A perfect amalgam of explosive sound, dreamy lyrics and sonic depth; for me the pinnacle of alternative shoegaze and the finest album I have ever heard.
When I first met my girlfriend, one of the things we first noticed we had in common was musical taste, though in retrospect it seems that at the time our tastes were actually very different. But either way, we adapted. The commonality we share is not preference for a particular genre, but preference for good music in general. Hah.
Who was I, then? An introspective, literate young guy whose social interactions were admittedly plentiful, but I was never really able to talk about music with many people; the barrier of taste left me shut alone with ought but Orbital, Rhian Sheehan and Boards of Canada records to comfort me. As varied and complex a mix as they, probably never breathed in the same sentence before now, left me utterly unprepared for the wave of classic rock, post rock, noise rock and grunge rock I was to encounter at the whim of a vicious collection of magnificent CDs brought to me in a bag that looked barely to be able to contain its contents. Atop the pile was Verve's A Storm In Heaven, a sole disc and paper inserts carefully contained in paper and cardboard, a second-hand purchase that cost less than a litre of milk; the disc that changed my life.
It was not my first encounter with Verve. Prior to the bestowing of this collection upon me for an all too brief time, I'd been advised to listen to Urban Hymns or A Storm In Heaven: then I had picked Urban Hymns as it was the more popular one, and it had "Bittersweet Symphony" on it. No alarms and no surprises. It was a fine record, but not an outstanding one, and besides a handful of delightfully post-folk sing-alongs, I set the record down and, with fire in my hands, picked up Storm. An initial listen was on a lengthy car trip with a group of others; atypically, I sat in the back with my headphones on and ignored them all for a solid hour; Verve had taken ahold of my soul, and at the risk of sounding like a sonnet, its sunlight blinded a synaesthetic experience and left this lonely soul cold and shaking. My lord.
By now, I've listened to A Storm In Heaven a solid fifty times at the very least, making the time spent listening to it the longest amount of time I've spent letting any album pervade me. And it is Storm's aural aesthetic of deep, rich and huge sound that is the most engaging aspect and defining characteristic. Nick McCabe's guitar work may not have earned as many accolades as perhaps one might expect, but it remains the most fantastic sound created with a guitar I have ever heard. Sure, he wasn't the first or last to distort and haze it in this freakish manner, but even the lords of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine, never quite captured the control and aggressively friendly, lonesome but swarming power McCabe perfects on this album; at least, not for me.
It helps that throughout Storm's ten tracks, there are absolutely no weak spots. Not even weak sections, weighty bridges, wrong notes, flawed instrumentations or a wasted breath. Richard Ashcroft's unmistakable vocals help his beautifully written lyrics to dance freely across a dreamy and expansive landscape paved with glee and glory by the thick, thick walls of mind-melding sound that refuses to settle for simply evoking emotion but has to reform and re-invent old, progressive ways of manipulating guitars and vocals so that the emotion bleeds and oozes from the relentless stabs of the guitar, open wounds of refreshing musical mania sweeping the mind's perception of its existence to a new plane of rolling explosivity.
The album rollicks to life with the sweeping, declarative "Star Sail" and second single "Slide Away", the latter of which you may recognize vaguely if you were into alt-rock in the early 90s. Lead single "Blue", which appears later on the album and is interestingly my least favourite of ten of my favourite songs of all time, is certainly the most recognizable track, but even then it requires quite a deep and sonic knowledge of art rock and noise. The album's third track "Already There" is the first of five of the greatest tracks I have ever heard, littered sporadically throughout this ten-track opus. "Already There" opens slowly with moody guitars striking a subdued background and Ashcroft's croon addressing the night with lyrics that may seem lacklustre on paper but sung by the man himself sound like the declarations of a higher power ("If trees cut stars and eyes to heaven, I'll bend them back, I'll bend them again / If my skin looks tired and old from living I'll turn right back and live it again") and just as Ashcroft looks to be tapping into the meaning of life itself, McCabe shatters all doubt with his roaring, monstrous howls of guitar which sound like classic riffs of olden, slowed down to 0.025x.
The storm continues raging and ploughing with "The Sun, The Sea", which showcases guitars and saxophones out of control with magnitude and cavernous determination, yet is not the best track on the album to do just that (we'll get to that one soon). In between "The Sun..." and "Already There" is the perfectly positioned and seemingly endless (in a good way, of course) "Beautiful Mind," which continues the trend of lyrical brilliance ("A smile and a hand mix like water with sand as far as you're concerned") this time against a considerably quietened but nevertheless present guitar. In fact, the track contains some of McCabe's most memorable guitar work, as near-silent as it may be. There is one reverberating note he plays quickly over and over with increasing aggression that makes it seem as if it is approaching slowly and disappearing quickly, giving astounding literal depth to an already decidedly three-dimensional work. "Beautiful Mind" concludes with the album's most emotional moment, void of words and sound except for a near-inaudible, rolling guitar sound. It hums once, it floats again, and for the third and final time, it rolls over you like a combine harvester made of feathers.
The same sort of quiet, unobtrusive guitar is at the heart of sonic dreamscape "Virtual World", again topping the already stunning lyricism ("She's breathing down in a hole in my head, in the dirty half light where time means nothing at all"), Ashcroft's voice demanding and softly intoning at once; McCabe's guitar softly enveloping the listener and plucking flawlessly tunes that tug at the strings of emotion we all like to believe we feel inside us. The track eases to silence... then roars back to life. When I say roar, I don't mean in a heart-stopping, "Like Herod"-esque scream, I mean a gradual, overwhelming, sighing exhalation of universal pleading, at the heart of which is Ashcroft's simple intonation ("Bet you could if you wanted to."). I feel like I could.
Here the album begins to slow and ease into lusher, dreamier lands of calming reassurance, before yet another explosion. The greatest album ever recorded reaches its apex with a harrowing, blinding, utterly terrifying masterpiece entitled "Butterfly." The album's penultimate track, Butterfly is where Ashcroft's vocals and McCabe's guitars both reach the peak of their ability - and then push over the edge into sonic endlessness. Ashcroft's best ever lyrics, best ever delivery, and McCabe's best ever guitar work, as well as a stunning saxophone solo and airtight production; some of many highlights. Ashcroft sings some of my favourite lyrics of all time and to quote just some is to snub other beauties, however at the heart of the track is this declaration: "You could take the storm away forever every day, cause you're mine and I don't know what to say / You could let my smile disappear for a year cause you're mine, that's the only way I like it to be, butterfly". The raw energy and emotion with which he screams that titular word are mightier than anything I've ever heard any other singer muster. It's almost as if I can feel the weight of the world on Richard Ashcroft. And as dreamy and romantic as those lyrics seem written down, in the song they are ***ing heavy and scary as hell.
Even without its final track, Storm would still be my favourite album of all time, however the inclusion of "See You In The Next One" only strengthens its position and my love for the LP. The song is unlike any before it, the softest and closest to Ashcroft's heart. McCabe sits to the side strumming softly and lets the singer make the song his own, and Ashcroft's lyrics are yet again amazing. As heavily as I have praised all the lyrics on the album thus far, the final track contains my favourite lyric of them all, beautifully simple and hugely emotional: "I like the way it was... / I hate the way it is now." If the way it is now is ended, I hate it too. Ashcroft moans reluctantly his goodbye to love itself, and the song's funereal theme and unbearable sadness seems ready to undo it, but doesn't. The song ends perfectly with a quiet final strum and the album sinks into the silence it came from.
The Verve never made another album that even approached Storm in terms of power, control and perfection. The closest they came was an EP released before Storm, simply titled Verve, which is full of the sound you'll find on the longer album and is unsurprisingly ranked highest among all the EPs I've ever listened to. However, as A Northern Soul and especially Urban Hymns moved the group in a different direction, it seems perhaps fitting. A clone of Storm would've been saddening, though it is equally upsetting that the group never again seemed as comfortable and agreeable with each other as in their first album. A Storm In Heaven is a perfect summation of airtight instrumentation and soulful vocals inhabiting a cavernous realm of echoing and reverberating sound, and I expect never to hear another album quite as perfect. I have tried for a long time to put into words all the things I find so lovely, warm, beautiful and incredible about the sound of this work, and now I'm confident I've done so: it's as wholesome and moving an achievement as one can hope to come across in all the flickering years of their life, and to have created it seems enough to warrant any and all messing around that may have followed. Yes, with A Storm In Heaven, it seems we have more than enough and not enough. Never have I felt so in love with art or sound or aural experience as each time "Star Sail" flickers through my airs till "See You In The Next One" drifts away from my mind and all the things it feels.