I’m reaching the point in this process where I’m starting to get a little philosophical about it all. While I won’t miss my self-imposed weekly deadline, I will miss just rifling through my memories for things to say about albums I love, albums I remember fondly, or albums I’d pretty much forgotten.
Having got this far, and surprised myself by still having something new (well, new-ish) to say each week, I do however find my thoughts wandering as I figure out how to introduce the last four on the list, which by definition haven’t had nearly as much time for me to think about and respond to them.
This album and the next are something of a pair; they appeared in my life during one of those life-changing years which seem to keep cropping up in this story, but I’m going to leave the telling of that tale for another week. This album, therefore, left me scratching my head a little, until I realised that what I wanted to talk about with this album is that – in common with many albums released in the last few years – it’s really hard to pin down what exactly is meant by ‘album’; indeed, what is Falling Satellites? Is it the CD version, the digital version, the limited edition vinyl release, some of which have more tracks than others; some of which have tracks billed as ‘extras’ which appear to be part of the main body of work on other releases.
Look, if you’ve read this far, you know about the semicolon thing…
Back at the beginning of this story, I pinned the blame for the concept of ‘album’ as I knew it on the Beatles and Revolver, which isn’t entirely fair or accurate – after all, my contemporaries who grew up in Canada know a slightly different album called Revolver, and it wasn’t until Sgt. Pepper came along with its immutable track list that even the Beatles could claim full control over what was released in their name.
But Revolver, I think , along with a few others of the same era, crystallised what was meant by the long-playing record album; around 40 minutes of music, split over two sides of vinyl, carefully curated so there was some sort of natural flow to the thing and (according to my theory of albums, at least) with the strongest song as the first track on side 2.
We called them albums in the 1970s, and never thought to question that. We certainly didn’t call them “LPs”, as that was the kind of thing our parents called their jazz albums from the 1950s. You would ask your friends if they had heard the latest Groundhogs album, and they might respond that they had it on cassette or tape, but you couldn’t put an LP on a tape; that made no sense.
It was only relatively recently that I discovered the derivation of the word ‘album’ as it related to the 12-inch slabs of black plastic we all carried around. It’s a fascinating story, to do with how the early 78 rpm disks were bound together in books, so that you could hear more than three minutes at a time of your favourite artist, and – despite what Wikipedia claims – also referred to the way some defunct post-war formats were packaged, with collections of records bound together as a ‘record album’.
We knew nothing of this in 1975, of course – all we knew was that we were album fans rather than the kind of people who went to Woolworths and bought singles.
The album seemed to be a fixed and permanent point of reference – if a band had more music than would fit on one album, they released a double album. Simple. Or, if you’ve been with me all the way back to that mad Jim Steinman album, threw in a separate single as there wasn’t quite enough material to fill four sides.
I even own a Joe Jackson album which has music on three sides of vinyl…
It was, however, the advent of the CD which started to change all that we knew to be true. I blame Dire Straits.
When Brothers in Arms came out, everyone (well, not me – I didn’t have that kind of disposable income) rushed out and bought themselves a CD player and a copy of the album with the resonator guitar on the front. The CD was, inevitably, seen as the definitive version, and the album; the LP version, was the abridged one. For the first time I’m aware of, there was a distinct difference between the two formats, and the CD was the ‘correct’ one. This wasn’t achieved by having extra tracks on the CD, it was simply an exercise in editing some of the more egregiously twiddly instrumental bits in half the songs so they would fit on one LP. For the first time, there were two versions of an ‘album’, and things only got worse from there.
I have a child who loves one of the early albums on this list – Close to the Edge. The version he loves, however, isn’t the one I reviewed way back at the beginning of this process; it’s the ‘Special Edition’ with extra tracks and early versions of the finished songs. He still finds it weird to listen to only the first 40 minutes of it….
Throughout this exercise, I’ve found myself annotating the Spotify extracts I’ve been putting at the top of each post, as they more often than not have all kinds of ‘special’ treats attached, while all I’m interested in is the album as I knew it back in the old days where you got whatever would fit on two sides of vinyl, and that’s it.
Of course, the artists will see it differently, but my response to that is that Pink Floyd’s last proper album, The Division Bell is twice as long as Dark Side of the Moon, but I doubt many would argue that it’s twice as good. It also feels a little cynical to me, even with artists I love. To bring up Porcupine Tree for the third time in four weeks, their new album contains seven tracks and is perfectly realised to these ears.
Unless you stream it, of course, where you’ll find another three tracks tacked on. All three are excellent, and had they been included in the album, would have fitted (you’d want to change the order a bit, though). I’m probably showing my age, but in my mind an album is an album is an album, and having bonus bits attached make it something else – for example, the remixed and re-released version of OK Computer which came out with all the extras was called OK NOT OK, which at least is honest about it being something else.
Anyway, to Frost* and the album I discovered by the old-fashioned method of reading a magazine and seeing an interview with them. These days, of course, I can just fire up my friendly local streaming service and listen to the whole thing, and – after a couple of listens – decide I love it and would like to own a copy. Since I now have something approximating a disposable income, I can go and buy myself a digital copy and listen to it whenever I want.
Except – what is it, exactly, that I’m listening to? There’s a clean symmetry to this album as (I think) it was originally intended; it starts with a track called First Day and ends with one called Last Day.
Then there are two or three more tracks, which on some versions are labelled as ‘Bonus Tracks’, but which are just included as far as I can see on every released version. The ‘two or three’ refers to the fact that there’s an untitled instrumental tacked on at the end of at least one version.
So, what do I review here? From the first time I heard this, I assumed that it was an album of 13 tracks; to later find that two of them were actually ‘bonus tracks’ leaves me scratching my head. I’ll review all 13, as I didn’t make a distinction at the time, but all this uncertainty makes me feel old.
Close to the Edge doesn’t need any bonus material; I doubt many albums do, but it’s hard to tell these days where the ‘album’ ends, and the ‘extra stuff’ starts. Let’s see what this sounds like, armed with that knowledge.
It starts, with First Day, almost as if in the middle of something – a ‘ping’ introducing a wash of keyboards with an indistinct lyric about remembering how I ended at the start – all of which reinforces the idea for me that this album’s going to have a natural ending; a companion bookmark to this contemplative start.
There’s no break, as the album bursts into life with Numbers. In keeping with the pedigree of some of these musicians, there’s a hint of frenetic 1980s synthesiser work here, but the layered vocals and the slightly off-kilter rhythms place this in a different idiom altogether. Having said that, it is at heart, a quirky pop song of the kind which Thomas Dolby used to regularly bother the singles charts.
OK, we think, we know what we’re dealing with here. However, if this whole album was just 80s influenced synth-pop I doubt it would be on this list, so buckle in.
Numbers ends with a sound effect of breaking glass, which leads into the extraordinary soundscape of Towerblock. I’m sure there’s a specific genre which is being referenced here; it sounds to me a mix of several different sonic experiments – there’s a flowing melody sung with a slightly treated vocal, several hints at what’s to come, and then the song – and I don’t know how better to describe this – collapses like a towerblock being demolished.
Rarely, if at all in this list or elsewhere, have I heard a song which so viscerally describes what’s happening, not in words, but just in music. Everything breaks down; there’s a scattering of rhythms, a mix of distorted and tortured instruments before the song gradually pulls itself from the rubble and gathers strength gradually; the lyric is looking for a way to express the emotions involved in seeing your childhood home demolished, and while the words convey the mix of emotions, the music seems to underlay it all with a kind of barely-suppressed anger which eventually devolves into static and tension
Signs begins with just voice and drum; a bass drifts in to underline the quiet philosophical lyric before the chorus explodes into full flower. When it subsides back into verse, the bass is now much more active and playful, building a platform for other sounds to rest on, so that the second chorus is a little less surprising. It’s a fascinating lyric, this one – I can imagine the teenaged me finding it incredibly deep and worthy of intense scrutiny.
I can also imagine the teenaged me rocking out to the guitar break in the middle, which effortlessly shifts genre again, sounding not a million miles from the nineties metal which made that genre so much more acceptable in polite company that the stuff I used to listen to ever was.
It’s a great song, this, with the broken rhythms just skipping along as if all this lyricism on one hand and overdriven riffing on the other just weren’t happening. Even the modulation at the end is entirely earned – I have a whole essay about the ‘truck driver’s gearchange’ kind of modulation; this one is almost subtle, and causes me to smile rather than wince.
Lights Out is set up as a little light relief from the big, muscular songs. Three minutes of pop song fit the bill nicely here, and the mix of male and female voices drive the song along delightfully. And then you listen carefully, and realise it’s a song about dying. The reason this album’s on this list is that it does things like this all the time – reel you in with one view of the world, only to subvert your expectations.
Heartstrings barrels in like a Muse song; all synthesiser riffs with the inevitability of a steam train; in the way of Frost*, however, it changes mood and direction with the entry of the – I’m going to call it a chorus; it’s more of a refrain. Either way, it’s another of those gorgeous melodies, given space to breathe by a sudden gap in the driving force. They repeat the trick a couple more times; the third time round, the voices are subdued and treated, almost enticing you to lean in before bursting back into life. It’s another thought-provoking and intriguing lyric; much of this album appears to be about being taken before your time, and this one seems to throw in a wartime metaphor before drifting down to the synthesised beat which introduces Closer to the Sun.
This song is one of those which just fills me with joy and an almost irresistible (and inadvisable) urge to get up and dance. It plays tricks on us, lulling us into a sense of being a chilled-out dance anthem before slowly subsiding into its own groove and almost grinding to a halt. Whereupon something happens which is only inevitable after you’ve heard it once. Out of the primordial soup comes a buildup which goes nowhere; a gentle arpeggio which hints at something, and then a guitar solo by guest star Joe Satriani during which the power of rational thought entirely escapes me. There are few songs which do that to me; this one joined that list on first hearing, and is in no danger of ever dropping out of it.
One of the joys of music is that you can’t really explain it (yes, I know); it just is, and sometimes – in those perfect moments like the solo in the middle of this song, the isness of it just overwhelms, and you perhaps get a glimpse of what the composer heard before they tried to capture it by writing it down.
I love Closer to the Sun. I may even love it more than Closer to the Heart, which, for those who know me, is saying something…
And then it seamlessly burst into the greatest title on this and virtually any other album, The Raging Against the Dying of the Light Blues in 7/8. Which pretty much sums itself up in its description. If you can imagine what a song called that would sound like, you’ve probably got it. If you can’t; have a listen – it’s got something for everyone, including the title, designed to appeal to the Dylan Thomas fan.
The Dylan Thomas fan who generally prefers their music in 7/8. Works for me.
Oh, it’s also the second track to reference the album title, using the same melodic line. And you were wondering what I saw in this album.
The ending sounds to me cinematic, which prompts me to reflect that a falling satellite is one of the many motifs in Wim Wenders’ Until the end of the World; which I’m pretty sure I referenced way back during the Achtung Baby post. Everything is connected. Well, most things in my brain are, anyway.
Nice Day For it… for example immediately makes me think of that early scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur and Ford are in the pub. The song itself is a neat recapitulation of three others we’ve already heard, kind of tying it all together before heading for the exit by way of a nod to a previous album.
The three quotations are subtle, and could easily be missed if you were intent on just enjoying the instrumental, but there are enough musical motifs from earlier songs to make you (well, me) lean in and pick out that the voices are saying, and why they sound familiar.
How all that ties into the Vogon fleet demolishing Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass isn’t entirely clear to me, but then I remember Towerblock.
Concept albums; there’s nothing like them.
Hypoventilate clearly points back to an earlier song, Hyperventilate, the first track on their debut album, Milliontown. Coming to it, as I did, not having heard the earlier album, all I heard was an instrumental which appeared to be playing backwards…
So we come to the end; Last Day. It does indeed close the circle of the album; not directly related to the opener, it does lay oput some of the key themes in a sparse piano-and-voice arrangement which – deliberately, I assume – sounds like the end of something.
Which makes the two bonus tracks something of an imposition. I know ‘ve already moaned about this too much, but the first 11 tracks on this album form a whole; the extra bits just feel stuck on.
But I said I would, so here they are:
Lantern is something of a sketch at first; even when the second vocal line enters, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that – given the full instrumentation of the album – there’s some fleshing out to do here. It’s a pleasant song and hardly a half-finished song, but I’d have been happy to wait until the next album to hear what became of it.
British Wintertime is closer in feel to the album which came before it; pensive and meditative in the beginning. I’m resisting the temptation to write this off as not complete, like the last track, because I think the repeated line does build appropriate tension, and the fact that we only hear what happens next instrumentally is of a piece with the rest of Falling Satellites, especially the way the music speeds up into the thunderstorm, leaving us with a genuine sense of having experienced something, not just listened to it.
All of Falling Satellites is like that, and so this song does fit. Just not here, as a bonus track.
If you’d stopped after 11 tracks, you’d have missed something, but you wouldn’t have felt something was missing, I don’t think. Make of that what you will.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Several, and in the way of such things, I haven’t got round to them all yet. Milliontown is a good place to start, though, and I have recently been enjoying last year’s Day and Age, although I don’t think it’s as good as this.
Compilations to consider?
In the modern way, there are various bits and pieces available to stream. No compilation as such, although there is a multi-CD retrospective called 13 Winters which includes pretty much everything and therefore doesn’t strike me as a compilation as such.
I can’t tell how official or otherwise the many live ‘albums’ on Spotify are, but The Philadelphia Experiment seems to be an actual artifact rather than something cobbled together by a streaming service. The recording is from 2009, though, so if you were hoping to hear how they did Towerblock in a live environment, you’ll be disappointed.
The various members of Frost* have been in many other bands over the years. Indeed, they at one point shared a drummer with the next band on the list. However, I feel it only fair to point out that if you’ve heard of main man Jem Godfrey, it’s as composer of hit singles for the likes of Atomic Kitten and Blue. Great melodies will out, whatever context you put them in.