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An Ode to Math Rock Ancestry and an Indie Pop Hereafter 


For many a young person drifting hopelessly through those angst-stricken teenage years, music is the greatest comfort. Guiding lyrics sang in heartfelt tones can sooth in times of trouble, elevating an unassuming frontman into a sage of the stage. Reminiscing to oneself about having witnessed passionate performances from gigs past can bring about a warm nostalgia. In music scenes underground and with bands underloved, this is often accompanied by a feeling of privilege for having been one of the 30 or something strong audience, marooned inside a dingy venue taking shared solace in the evening’s escape. The pure release in the intimacy of these moments sets aside any lingering awkwardness of being in a room that everyone wishes was less empty. Nervous bands feel all-the-more appreciated, deservedly, as those hearty singalongs and well-timed nods prove the audience’s attentiveness and familiarity with the music.

Having seen them a dozen or so times in the past 8 years, Tall Ships embody these experiences like no other band. Ric Phethean intonates profound mantras with a sheepish innocence, an uncertainty that belies his impact in the room. Lyrics explore both the introspective and the exultant whilst instruments march along in tandem; the pensive plods along the keyboard in Vessels or Ode to Ancestors flow flawlessly into the pent-up energy of Hit the Floor or Plate Tectonics.

I remember with limpid clarity the moment I heard ‘Oscar’ for the first time. On a tour preceding the release of Everything Touching, new tunes were working their way into the set. Out of an enchanting glut of songs filled with familiar sing-along anthems came a riff I had not heard before, from a band that – on recollection, I realise - were primed to air new material but also nervous about the abreaction they knew they were about to undergo. As the song rose to its crescendo (in that typically-tall-ships manner) I heard for the first time the line ‘I love you more than you know’; a heartfelt refrain pouring from exhausted lungs. Then bassist Matt Parker, crouched and cowering in the ache of the moment, paused and took respite, summoning enough energy to longingly and heart-wrenchingly reach for a lightly crumpled photograph of a loved one, sellotaped to the cabinet of his bass amp. ‘Oscar’ is about familial bonds, friends, ancestry and the joy of the unspoken contracts we assume with the people we love and care for. I’ve no compulsion to know who it was that Matt was paying tribute to so touchingly, to know that they ‘share more than blood’ and that their ‘heartbeat is the most important thing’ to him served to consecrate that moment as one of the most moving I have experienced from live music.

Approaching Tall Ships’ long-awaited second album with this rich personal history behind me was difficult. Having waited an extra month due to pressing problems, the time that had elapsed between the release of Will to Life - first aired back at ArcTanGent in 2015 - and the first full playthrough was nearing two years. How would this new album land, mixing upbeat festival songs by now so familiar with newer, mellower and more mournful offers. Long time collaborator and producer James Field had become a fully-fledged member, reducing the live performance workload of Ric to the benefit of his already engaging performance style. But how might a fourth man wholly focused on the keys in the studio play out on the album?

Any nervous anticipation I had was shattered and reconciled about a minute into the album. The opener Road Not Taken is a perfect harbinger of the contrasting styles to come, the split sections  encapsulating the yin and yang of the album in one bifurcated song. Once the stripped-down opening has settled in, and whispered vocals and synths have passed, the band punch in with full percussion and guitar, giving a satisfying glimpse into the indie rock anthems to come. Amongst the most radio friendly of these anthems are the two tracks released as music video singles, Will to Life and Mediations on Loss, featuring thumping rhythms and nods to old influences like Biffy Clyro, with massive hook-filled choruses and a crunchy guitar-driven tone. On the softer end of the pop spectrum, Lucille darts in with an interlocked rhythm section reminiscent of early Bombay Bicycle Club, though Tall Ships make their own mark with a chorus of vocal lines - taken from all parts of the song and interwoven - that works so surprisingly well as an ending cacophony. Testament to the true accessibility of this album, Lost & Found features a short guitar riff that sounds like the Arctic Monkeys track ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, showcasing the indie band making ballads with a nostalgic 80’s tone.

Ending on a note of relative optimism, Day by Day is a bittersweet anthem for repair and renewal, a chance ‘to redefine why it is you live your life’. These sentiments define this charming track as it fights its way towards being optimistic but ultimately remains grounded in the futile mire of reality: ‘we need to do something before we get too old.’  The tone is at times upbeat, the lyrics never too saccharine, the sad reflections thus far end with a glimmer of hope, like watching a split of daylight radiate between two grey clouds.

A word for the two tracks hidden away on the C side of the vinyl could not go amiss. Something of a concealed title track, Impressions creates a purposeful backdrop of layered synths as Ric roars out with a lyrical drive-by of the albums themes. A wallop of uplifting guitar slowly builds in a cinematic moment of anticipation reminiscent of their debut album closer, Murmurations; this fiery post-rock instrumental as engrossing as Rock Action era Mogwai. Meanwhile, Purge finishes the offerings of this album with a little guitar groove, jumping and darting, whilst the vision of Impressions is brought to a close with a plangent piano refrain.

As ever, Tall Ships’ drum work is understated, a highlight from Everything Touching being the simple fx-laden beat that starts and underlines Idolatry. Once again – and more ear-catching than ever - Jamie shows how best to serve the song by writing simple, crunchy motifs with the odd beat chopped off, reverb slapped on or percussive tone changed, as to excite the ear on the first listen but to let it settle in hypnotically upon repeat. Meanwhile, Matt’s complimentary bass riffs range from the pulsing grooves in Lucille to the thumping persistence of Meditations on Loss to the warm and wide undercurrents of Home.

Along this well-trodden path from largely instrumental, intricately looped and angular math-rock towards a more careful pop sound sit bands like Enemies and, more recently, Waking Aida. Similarly, Tall Ships’ turn from dense loops of interwoven riffs to an indie pop tone traces a clear path. From the spoken word samples on their first EP, to the big swooning vocal lines on ‘Chemistry’, to the more vocally driven parts of Everything Touching, now we have the complete package; nine tracks where vocal hooks don’t just adorn great riffs as an afterthought, but provide the foundation for the song. The stories and sentiments told feel as if they are influencing the style of the instruments for the first time in the band’s work.

Resultantly, the song structures are built around the lyrical drive too. And so, although the band have adopted a more indie alt-pop tone, outside of the radio-friendly singles they still have a penchant for longer songs with unusual musical throughflows. This pushes them to rewarding places. Ric’s unwinding narratives compel the band to forego the traditional verse-chorus set up in favour of one long, building and unfolding track that slowly envelopes those brave enough to listen attentively. In doing so, the band avoid a feeling of disjointedness; no longer treading back along old paths with a chorus repeated wholesale, but forging a new one on which Ric’s evocative message can develop. This allows songs like Home and Petrichor to germinate organically, to be as immersive sonically as the lyrics are in their narrative form.

Since the release of the B-side Send News from 2011’s single Hit the Floor, I have been enamoured with Tall Ships at their most delicate. When the bombast of pulsing drums and angular riffs subsides, you are left – in Idolatry, Ode to Ancestors and another B-side, Life Goes On - with layers of vocal, ripples of piano and delicate refrains to sing along to. For this reason, the lilting Lost & Found is without a doubt my personal highlight of this release, and arguably the best showcase of Ric’s unique ability never to waste a good lyric on a half-hearted melody, but to propel each line into significance with a memorable one. Lyrically, Ric writes the textbook for demonstrating how profound it can be to never worry about profundity, but to know the first words that come to mind often capture the idea at its most transparent and honest. On this theme, it is surprising that after the many years the band have had to self-produce the album, achingly crafting every single note and tone of each overdub, the album still sounds the result of an effortless, unstudied process.

A common criticism from those that have been following the band since their guitar loop-driven early days is that they’ve lost their exciting mathyness. This was perfectly crystallised to me at ATG in 2014 when (in a drunkenly slurred Scottish accent) a young man confided in me his belief that ‘Tall Ships are wee bit too poppy.’ Well, I’d obviously argue after having written this ludicrously long review, I think they’re exactly poppy enough: utterly hypnotic, effortless, memorable, but still showcasing intricate, complex and thoughtful songs with stunning musicianship and a ‘less is more but 5 sets of backing vocals and 3 synth tones still aren’t quite enough’ sort of feeling. A masterful album and their best release to date. Another minute would be too intense to bear.

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