Until the Earth Begins to Part is the full-length debut from the band NME dubbed “the Scottish Arcade Fire”. From the first track on, it’s easy to see how such a moniker could be given, but it’s also hard to see how it could be denied, so apt is the comparison. The violin’s prominence, swelling and fading throughout the opener, “Nearly Home”, does evoke the lush, string-filled ambience of that certain Canadian band, especially as vocalist Jamie Sutherland whimpers, “I had a good idea / Let’s lay these bones to rest.”
“If the News Makes You Sad, Don’t Watch It” is a decidedly more Scottish number; the brass and the danceable beat construct a triumphantly vulnerable folk rhythm. Three minutes in, the song takes a turn and becomes a plaintive love song that showcases the vocalist’s skill for hitting a perfect falsetto at certain moments.
The title track is a bit slower to get started, especially with the song’s midsection being somewhat repetitive. By the finale of orchestral swells, though, the album is back on course and ready for the sparse piano ballad, “A Promise”, a song so perfectly full negative space that the Arcade Fire can only aspire to it. The quietness of the song also helps demonstrate Sutherland’s voice, which is so full of subtle complexities that it is often drowned out by fuller songs. Yet, the orchestra enters right on schedule three minutes in—it’s lovely, but it undoes the beauty of having a more sparse song amid such busy songs. “Thoughts on a Picture (In a Paper, January 2009)” features a melody eerily akin to the Arcade Fire’s “Intervention”, but the prominent brass and quasi battle-march that form quickly undo that point of reference. Once again, the repetitive nature of the lyrics as the song ebbs subtracts a bit from the song’s ethos, leaving the listener wondering whether the drama of one repeated lyric about bone-stealing has been earned.
“If Eilert Loevborg Wrote a Song Like This” is the most Scottish number on the album, made for folk-dancing. (To save you a Google search, the titular character is in the Ibsen play Hedda Gabler.) The following track, “Wolves”, is one of the most heart-wrenching songs on the album. The production is flawless, allowing both the violin and the vocals to soar, and bringing in more driving percussion at just the right point. The following song, “Ghosts”, is similarly relatively slow and quiet, with the bigger orchestration that enters (again at three minutes) more subtle than in most tracks on this album.
The penultimate track, “A Good Reason”, is the most rock-inflected one, featuring sharp percussive stabs and distorted electric guitars. The Scottish folk-sound kicks in soon as well, but including a more rocking song this late on the album still seems like an odd choice. It’s sure to be a live favorite and definitely could wake sleepy audiences, but after eight tracks that decidedly feature less standard rock elements, the song is a bit off-putting despite its palpable energy.
The closer, “Slow Parade”, is another perfectly fine song that would have been placed better elsewhere. “Slow Parade” is another excellent example of Sutherland’s falsetto, and the rise and fall of his timbre, paired with the crescendos and silences of the song, make for a particularly nice treat. Predictably, the song takes a bit of a turn three minutes in and turns into a vivid, nearly post-rock tsunami of ceremony.
Until the Earth Begins to Part is a very good album; each band member is skilled at his or her craft, and the album benefits from it. The fusion of Scottish folk with orchestral rock is nicely done and gives a unique edge to a band that will surely face the curse (albeit an earned one) of too many comparisons.