Alpha: The Impossible Thrill

Wilson Neate


The Impossible Thrill

Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2001-03-20

Until the dawn of punk, those of us who grew up in Bristol in the 1970s had little to be happy about on the rock front. Prior to the emergence of bands like the Cortinas and the Pop Group, our most famous musical progeny had been Russ Conway -- a Liberace-esque pianist without the mink and the rings -- and Fred Wedlock, the West Country's answer to Billy Connolly. Of course, things have changed considerably over the course of the last decade as the likes of Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead, among others, have put the city well and truly on the global pop-culture map.

But Alpha isn't just another Bristol-based act riding on the coat-tails of the big three and trading off others' successes. While the band's sound does have something in common with that of its label boss (Massive Attack) -- particularly on the songs that combine emotive female vocals and layered, downbeat atmospherics -- Alpha's songwriting duo Corin Dingley and Andy Jenks aren't simple trip-hop copyists. Indeed, the most significant influences on the band's sound come from further afield, primarily from the easy-listening, string-driven symphonic pop of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David variety.

Much like the 1997 debut album Come from Heaven, The Impossible Thrill underscores Alpha's knack for lush, floating textures whose less beat-oriented groove emphasizes the "trip" component of so-called trip-hop. And while Dingley and Jenks retain the same vocal trio of Martin Barnard, Helen White, and Wendy Stubbs, Thrill finds Alpha moving away from the predominantly sample-based approach of the first album to work more with live instrumentation. This time around, Bacharach and David, for instance, aren't cited electronically and pasted in but rather, their influence is rendered more subtly within Alpha's own compositions.

Although this is most certainly night music, it's not as tense and angst-inflected as the work of some of Alpha's more celebrated fellow Bristolians. Thrill might be slightly dark but the disquiet here is translated to a general feeling of melancholy yearning, particularly by arrangements like "Eon" that are built around affecting vocal performances, swathes of strings, and gentle keyboard patterns. Elsewhere, the addition of warmly mournful harmonica and flute melodies enhances the album's wistful tone (for example, on "Still" and "Al Sation" respectively).

If the presence of Daddy G dueting with Stubbs on "Wishes" remind listeners of Alpha's similarities to Massive Attack, the tracks featuring Martin Barnard's delicately high voice move the band beyond such comparisons. Evoking a hybrid of Robert Wyatt (particularly in terms of his lilting phrasing) and a male Sade, Barnard's fluid vocals -- alternately laid back and edgy -- are the crucial ingredient that gives Alpha a truly distinctive sound. Hopefully, Dingley and Jenks will make fuller use of Barnard's talents on their next release.

Apparently, as part of her pick-something-that's-cool-and-appropriate-it routine, Madonna recently expressed a desire to work with Alpha. The project seems to have been shelved and that's probably just as well, since it would have meant an early kiss of death for such a promising band.

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