Aaron Matthews no longer knows how to spell
The Verve have had one of the most illogical career arcs in music history, going from Northern Manchester boys crafting hazy psychedelic guitar rock to anthemic pop stars to multiple break-ups and hasty reformations. All within their first eight years. Not bad. But first, you have to take it to the beginning, when they formed in 1989 in the mill and mining town of Wigan. After releasing a number of independent singles on Britpop stronghold Hut Records, Verve dropped their self-titled EP in ’92.
A year later, the band perfected a meld of brain-melting psychedelia, ear popping shoegaze and Richard Ashcroft’s shamanic, yearning howl floating over the noise. Full length debut, A Storm in Heaven, was edited down from endless jam sessions led by guitarist Nick McCabe. Suffice to say, Storm is not about lyrics; it’s about impressions, feelings untrammelled by production, song structure or a basic regard for form. This is pure mercurial sound, peeling out the speakers and bleeding into your brain. More than anything, Storm sounds HEAVY. Not in the bludgeoning sense– it’s musical pressure, an electric undertow pulling the listener through and around on shimmering waves of feedback, delay and squall. McCabe is a clear disciple of Young, Hendrix and Hazel but not beholden to any of them, shaping his own distinct, yet intangible style: massive fuzzy leads which spin out into finger-plucking and strum, then turn back into ear-rending crunch.
Ashcroft sits at the eye of the storm, the ghosts of Jim Morrison, Iggy and Ian Brown (the latter two are only dead inside; all praise due to Swiftcover Insurance) perched on his shoulder. Songs like “Star Sail” drift, sprawl and swirl like kites in a strong wind. The almost 6 minute “Already There” slowly unfurls from McCabe’s jangly opening riff until it explodes into piledriving riffs; Ashcroft croons “I swear I heard the screams/and all the wild eyes” like a man watching the universe implode. For its last two seconds, “Already There” returns to McCabe’s guitar and Ashcroft’s voice ringing above it, as the storm in heaven dissipates in a thick cloud of feedback haze. “The Sun, The Sea” is the Verve at their most primal, embryonic thrashing against the primordial muck that surrounds us.
Closer “Butterfly” points the direction forward for the band, a meditation on action, reaction and consequence which culminates in a swirl of echo, feedback and squealing sax that evokes side 2 of Fun House; blessedly it has nothing to do with Ashton Kutcher vehicle The Butterfly Effect.
The Verve’s music from Urban Hymns onwards shaped a generation of yearning, contemplative British rock bands from Coldplay to Snow Patrol. Yet the band’s early 90s work remains overlooked, rarely namechecked over a decade later, just because it’s easier to identify with the Hallmark balladry of “Lucky Man” than the suddenly-everything-has-changed revelation of “Make It Til Monday”. Where Urban Hymns is palatable, A Storm In Heaven is a night standing in a field by the cliffs, buffeted by strong winds and a overbearing sense of existential dread. In 2010, the album still spills over with teenaged angst, idealism and optimis. The music carries the feeling of being in your early 20s and having no idea what the future holds. If Ashcroft and company would never make a record quite like this again, neither would anyone else.
Video: The Verve- “Blue”