Groups named after founding members tend to come with a stigma attached to them. More often than not, they reveal themselves to be full-fledged bands in name only, with said eponymous member calling the shots in terms of songwriting and instrumentation. Some more blatant examples in recent memory include PJ Harvey, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Patti Smith Group. Hell, even the Smashing Pumpkins were always just a hop, skip, and a jump away from being called “The Billy Corgan Show.” Hence, one can’t be blamed for coming into the work of a band called the Sian Alice Group with certain expectations of creative input and control (though to be fair, the group doesn’t take the full name of their front woman in this case). That such expectations are all but completely inverted on the band’s 59:59 is kind of extraordinary. Throughout the titular running time of this fascinating and deceptively spare debut, there’s never any doubt that this is anything less than a team effort. It’s an accomplished one at that.
If anything, Sian Ahern’s vocals, striking and otherworldly they may be, are the least intriguing ingredient in the soup. The compositions from multi-instrumentalists Rupert Clervaux and Ben Crook, along with the occasional violin from Sasha Vine, prove invaluable in creating this album’s myriad atmospheric subtleties. The band pulls off the feat of undergoing several musical metamorphoses from song to song while at the same time transcending all of them, never once sounding derivative or lacking in identity.
Beginning with the shimmering sparseness of the 4AD-worthy (and appropriately named) “As the Morning Light,” Sian Alice Group bleeds out gradually, slowly venturing into such varied musical territories as experimental blues (“Way Down to Heaven”), hypnotic electro-jazz (“Contours”), and somber instrumental balladry (“Days of Grace III”). These songs are punctuated by well-timed ambient interludes that alternate between complimenting and contradicting their respective predecessors. The result is a cohesive whole that rewards repeated listens in its entirety rather than the instant and ultimately less satisfying gratification of so many other modern independent bands.
Amidst an array of sonic textures that could easily become detrimentally diverse in the wrong hands, Ahern holds her own quite nicely. Most of the time, she uses her voice not so much to sing but to add more color to the band’s collage. When she does play with actual verses, as she does on the aforementioned, Harvey-esque “Heaven” or the Silver Apples-haunted “Motionless” (the album’s misleadingly titled peak), she manages to convey frail beauty without ever coming off as timid or tenuous.
Though comparisons could be made to a more “loving” My Bloody Valentine or a less “spacey” Spiritualized, the Sian Alice Group is a rare anomaly: a new band that sounds both vaguely familiar yet undeniably unique. It may take several listens (maybe even a few years) before you can really convince people of the latter, but the charms of the former should make it well worth the effort. Or you could just wait it out. If this body of work is any kind of indicator, 119:59 should prove to be even more formidable.
Spiritualized – Let It Come Down
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything
Ride – Nowhere