Sian Alice Group – 59.59 (Social Registry, 2008)
There seems to be an obsession with time going on here. Sian Alice Group (their vocalist is called Sian, but is not actually called Sian Alice but in fact Sian Ahern – what’s that about?) have named their debut album after its precise duration. There are also a series of interludes at regular intervals, all of which are named after the point in the album’s duration at which they appear. Musically, although the album seems to veer between a number of different styles, the one unifying characteristic is the group’s tendency to extrapolate one single idea over time.
So, there’s the slow and lovely opener ‘As The Morning Light’, with its delicate picked guitar line and lingering repetitive motif. Whilst ‘Way Down To Heaven’ sounds very different, built as it is on a snarly, gritty two chord guitar riff (very close to PJ Harvey at her most skeletal), the approach is essentially the same. The band take one clear idea, repeat it, and build on it. It’s no surprise to find Brian DeGraw from Social Registry labelmates Gang Gang Dance and Jason Pierce and John Coxon from Spiritualized are among the band’s adherents (DeGraw and Coxon both play on the record). Indeed, ‘Way Down To Heaven’ echoes Spiritualized in its juxtaposition of religious imagery with more earthy themes.
There’s been much talk of a shoegazing revival lately (although I’ve always felt that term to be quite spurious), and SAG could easily fit this bill given Ahern’s vocals often serve as textural shading rather than as a foregrounded instrument. If she is drawing from this aesthetic, her group is making something much more interesting from it, as My Bloody Valentine did before them, emphasising the impact of slow-building layers of sound and relentless repetition.
As a consequence, this is an album that requires a good deal of patience, as well as a willingness to pick out minor details and subtle changes of mood. The judicious use of percussion helps, particularly on the free-sounding introduction to ‘When’, which takes the group far away from any obvious indie-rock conventions. When it veers into a quietly menacing, claustrophobic guitar figure, it’s an effective release of tension from the preceding chaos.
Whilst ’59.59’ can at times be icy, it’s never clinical or pseudo-intellectual, and much of its appeal lies in its calm, elegant restraint. The languid pace of the album’s mid-section presents something of a challenge, and the listener must fully yield to its hypnotic, mesmeric intent. The group generously reward those with staying power by saving some of the album’s highlights for its home straight – particularly the insistent rhythm of ‘Motionless’ and the shimmering, melancholy ‘Larsen B’.
There’s a sparing and merciless economy to this music – and a clear restraining impulse. The band never deploy two chords when just one will suffice, and they really succeed in making this minimalist aesthetic bear fruit. This is translucent music, where the full drama is partially concealed by the rigorous approach and technical simplicity. Yet the results are haunting and cumulatively addictive. It might make you appreciate the small joy in watching the counter as time ticks by.