Verve - A Storm in Heaven
Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.
Storming out of the small northwestern English town of Wigan amid a miasma of drugs, drones and delay came Verve. Before the “The” was added to the start of their name, before they found themselves a niche in the Britpop market and before it became all about singer Richard Ashcroft, the band was one hell of an enigma.
After releasing their oft-overlooked debut album A Storm in Heaven in 1993 and changing their name the following year to avoid dispute with Verve records, they also arguably changed their direction to a less psychedelic, more arranged direction. While later albums Urban Hymns and A Northern Soul would later be recognised by critics and consumers alike, the thoroughly deserved place of Storm in the upper echelon of 90s shoegaze and guitar albums vexatiously remains unrecognised in the eyes of the public.
A full-length follow up to the superb, hype-inducing Verve EP released in November 1992, A Storm in Heaven is bathed in heavy layers of delay and reverb used on both the guitars and the vocals, creating a typical shoegaze aesthetic. The disparities in volume dynamics throughout, almost like different parts of a storm passing by, bring an incredibly visceral element to the album, while the emotion pouring out of each and every instrument is overwhelmingly beautiful. An exceedingly burnished synthesis of the driving grooves of Parliament/Funkadelic, the blissful jams of Can, the stirring emotion of Pink Floyd, and the warped noise of My Bloody Valentine, the album’s intoxicating experimentation with sonic atmosphere provided one of the best, or certainly one of the most ornate, alt-rock and psych albums released in the 90s.
Whilst the album is often boxed together with the other releases that epitomised the shoegaze era, Storm was a very different type of the lavish atmospherics the genre became known for, helped by the incredible production talents of John Leckie (Radiohead, The Stone Roses, The Fall). “Star Sail”, for example, begins as a delay-laden arpeggiated mantra before erupting into a paroxysm of fury and euphoria, while lead single “Blue” mixes pop and atmosphere to perfection to create a Ride-esque song with a chorus and hook of epic proportions.
Boasting one of the best frontman/guitarist combinations in the 90s with Ashcroft and Nick McCabe, Verve circa Storm were a dynamic, rapidly improving force to be reckoned with. The band at this point proved to be too engrossed in their own ideals to be caught up in the music business fame machine, encapsulated by an early Ashcroft quote (“I don't think we're ever going to achieve what we want to achieve. It would be impossible, but that's the point, to aim further”).
It’s an idea that would likely be far removed from his thought process today, but one which explains why the group at the time were showing all the promise in the world. On Storm, the band is more of a group than merely a vehicle for Ashcroft to release his own material like they would be in their Urban Hymns days, with the album’s concise cultivation of mood and aura particularly prominent. The house they stayed in during the writing sessions for Storm was riddled with rats (of which the frontman had a phobia), and while Ashcroft lasted only a few days before fleeing, the rest of the band stayed to write; perhaps one of the reasons to why this album is often seen as more of a team effort.
While the importance of the intricate grooves provided by the rhythm section of Simon Jones and Peter Salisbury cannot be understated (most evident on “Slide Away”, which burns along gently on a slow funk groove), it is Ashcroft and McCabe’s contributions that made Storm so special.
If Urban Hymns was Ashcroft’s album, an expression to his growing yearning for definition and form, then A Storm in Heaven belongs to McCabe. While Ashcroft is loud, proud and in your face, McCabe is quiet, humble and unassuming; perhaps one of the reasons why they complemented each other so well before Ashcroft forced himself to the front of the group.
So uncomfortable with acclaim, McCabe once ran away and hid in the toilets when approached by the singer from the early-90s band Curve after a gig to say how great it was. If there is one criticism I have of My Bloody Valentine guitar noise idol Kevin Shields, it’s that he sometimes just makes that: noise. McCabe, on the other hand, whilst maintaining all the effervescence of psychedelic guitar, is just as remarkable turned down and is far more sonically diverse; his delicate guitar work moving around empty spaces, painting the album’s backdrops akin to the way a painter uses a paintbrush.
From the raucous chords of “Sun, The Sea” to the audible serenity of album standout and eye of the storm “Beautiful Mind”, everything on the album is truly mesmerizing, making it even more perplexing why the music community rarely gives it the praise it so thoroughly deserves. Shields is a master in his own right and I love MBV as much as the next wannabe music reviewer, but there is an extraordinarily gratifying element about McCabe’s work that really resonates within me. Perhaps looking to the stars rather than his shoes like so many of his contemporaries, McCabe’s sense of unbounded space and wide-open vistas made him the driving force behind Verve’s early work and the perhaps one of the closest icons the 90s could boast to Jimi Hendrix. Storm is about intuitions and feelings not based around conventions or mainstream audiences, nor songwriting or lyrics, and, because of this, McCabe is able to shine as brightly as he does.
While the topping of the UK indie rock charts by "Slide Away" represents one of the album’s only instances of any critical or commercial success, Verve’s early work remains perplexingly overlooked. While not as instantly palatable or radio friendly as its later counterparts, the mixture of the abrasive and the ethereal are as evident in the album musically as it is in its title. Mixing rock ‘n’ roll with a stirring array of jazz instrumentation to create an amalgam of almost any collection of rock subgenres you could possibly come up with, A Storm in Heaven should have been the album that made the group’s name.
The album is far removed from their later top-40 stylings, and though the group would also not see any money from the success of “Bittersweet Symphony” thanks to a dispute over the Rolling Stones sample it contains, Storm’s ornate, kaleidoscopic brilliance means it is arguably better off removed from the eyes and approval of the masses.