[23 March 2008]
Improvisational rock is a delicate style to practice, due to the many factors that can shift the tone or mood of the group. What if the drummer just got dumped by his girlfriend, and ruins all the songs with outbursts of skin bashing? What if the keyboard player gets food poisoning from a lousy chicken salad sandwich and has to keep one hand on his mouth so as to keep from ralphing on his vintage Moog? Sian Alice Group is an improvisational London-based band, and its song structures are similar to those of early Pink Floyd: they weave the experimental segments into composed pop tunes with verses and choruses, often overlapping. The group’s desire to constantly balance the two elements of its music keeps 59.59 from being truly exciting, as they never let the members’ unique musical personalities shine through nor do they allow a fully-formed pop song to crystallize.
Based on the title of the album and the multiple interludes with names such as “19’39”” and “46’51””, this album purports to be a unified, massive statement of a debut album in which every moment counts. Things start epically enough with “As the Morning Light”, as spacey flutters of cymbals and feedback flow into a beautiful trio of strings, guitar, and voice, recalling Constellation bands such as A Silver Mount Zion. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t follow the ups and downs that an epic will offer, rather offering a sustained mood and dynamic. When its sound does work, Sian Alice Group skillfully walks the line between improvisation, repetition, and accessible melody. “Contours” is a highlight, building from a hypnotic keyboard loop to a chugging drum-powered finale, one of the few songs in which there is a sense of development. Vocalist Sian Ahern has a penchant for elegant, classical melodies, the sort found in Pentangle or Espers’ II. This is most evident in the psychedelic ‘60s folk of “When…”, a pretty, though monotonous, tune that digresses to clichéd bird noises.
The album is weighed down too often by songs built around a single idea that develop little beyond the initial fifteen seconds. I would be surprised if anyone is moved to listen to “Kirilov” a second time, a three-chord piano dirge that gets no support from Ahern’s mournful melody. “Murder” is an aimless composition built around a piano loop, xylophone and various squalls of dolphin-like feedback. A portion of the album’s failures should be attributed to the album’s producer (and multi-instrumentalist), Rupert Clervaux, who drains the life out of just about every instrument on the album. They surely used a real piano (as they have their own London studio), though throughout the album it sounds like a heavily compressed keyboard preset. This underscores the general lack of dynamics in the songs and loses the listener’s attention far more rapidly.
Perhaps if the album had been 46.46 or even 38.38, Sian Alice Group could have pared down their ideas to a more cohesive statement with a manageable listening time. The tunes are mostly memorable, but the group runs them into the ground. Despite the improvisational elements in the songs, there is never a palpable spark between the musicians, a sense they are enjoying or hating what they are doing. This is only their debut, and they have solid ingredients for a fresh take on 60’s rock improv; Sian Ahern has a sultry Stevie Nicks way about her, and the drumming is solid throughout. They have opened for Spiritualized, whose guitarist and pianist guest on closer “Complete Affection”, though they don’t appear to be joined by anyone from Sian Alice Group, except the drummer. SAG needs to embrace its idiosyncrasies as a songwriting and improvising unit, lest it fritters away in no man’s land while more interesting bands ralph on their keyboards.