Alpha: Stargazing [Special Edition]

John Bergstrom


Stargazing [Special Edition]

Label: Nettwerk
US Release Date: 2004-03-23
UK Release Date: 2003-05-12

Alpha's 1997 debut, Come from Heaven, stands as the best morning-after comedown album ever made. On that album, the Bristol, England duo of Corin Dingley and Andy Jenks brought the then-burgeoning trip-hop scene to a new level of cool. They were signed to Massive Attack's label, Melankolic. Their lush soundscapes were anchored by stylized vocals and just enough melody to keep the listener hooked. Like Massive Attack, they knew that the only thing more hip than sampling Burt Bacharach was sampling Isaac Hayes doing Burt Bacharach. In short, they nailed the hazy, smoke-filled after-hours atmosphere that made Massive's first couple albums so effective, and added an extra layer of heartbreak.

After an undistinguished EP the following year, Alpha waited until 2001 to release the follow-up, The Impossible Thrill. That disc was a disappointment. In terms of atmosphere, it was almost literally more of the same. Musically, Dingley and Jenks felt they needed to forgo samples in favor of more live drums, bass, guitar and an orchestra. Perhaps inevitably, melody was an afterthought.

Now, nearly a year after its original UK outing, Nettwerk is releasing a slightly altered version of the duo's third LP, Stargazing. For this "Special Edition", Dingley has re-mastered and re-compiled the album, omitting three tracks from the UK version and adding two new tracks plus (strangely) an EP track from 1995. In either form, though, Stargazing clearly re-establishes Alpha as masters of downbeat, somnambulant electronica.

If you want to know what Stargazing sounds like, just look at the cover. Rarely has an album's outer sleeve so perfectly evoked the music within: The glowing spirals of light bathed in a warm blue background are otherworldly and inviting, abstract but perfectly coordinated. One doesn't so much listen to music like this as become immersed in it, intoxicated by the rippling keyboards, lush strings, and languid rhythms.

A crucial element to Alpha has always been Dingley and Jenks's use of guest vocalists to give shape and emotional resonance to their compositions. On Stargazing, regulars Wendy Stubbs, Helen White, and Martin Barnard are joined by Kelvin Swaybe, and the four contribute to some of the album's best songs. The Stubbs-sung "Once around Town" is as close to pure-pop as Alpha have ever come. With its exuberant chorus and Stubbs's well-mannered singing, it could almost be Saint Etienne. White's "Blue Autumn" sounds like its title, drifting along on a shuffling beat, twinkling piano and warm backing harmonies. Swaybe fits in well and adds an element of soul. His "Elvis" is apparently titled after his breathy, Presley-inspired performance. Without a hint of irony, he truly does the King proud.

Barnard, though, has always been the most affecting of Alpha's voices. His plaintive, buttery croon always sounds like he's just had his heart broken and is on the verge of tears. That seems to be the case in the gorgeous breakup songs "Lipstick from the Asylum" and "Portable Living Room", Barnard's yearning nestled snugly in Dingley and Jenks's sympathetic musical bed. When, in "Lipstick", he says, "I put it on you and me / And now I hate it on you and me", his regret is palpable.

Although it harkens back to Come From Heaven, Stargazing is not merely a retread. Though the samples return, there are fewer of them, and occasional live bass and drums lend a more organic feel to most songs. Instrumentals like "The Things You Might" and "Horseshit" (neither featured on the original version) verge on beat-driven, straight-up techno. And the vocal tracks in particular are more concise, emphasizing verses and choruses with not a lot of meandering in between.

Like the best comedowns, Stargazing is peaceful, intense and ultimately inspiring.





Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.


Inventions' 'Continuous Portrait' Blurs the Grandiose and the Intimate

Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium side project, Inventions are best when they are navigating the distinction between modes in real-time on Continuous Portrait.


Willie Jones Blends Country-Trap With Classic Banjo-Picking on "Trainwreck" (premiere)

Country artist Willie Jones' "Trainwreck" is an accessible summertime breakup tune that coolly meshes elements of the genre's past, present, and future.


2011's 'A Different Compilation' and 2014 Album 'The Way' Are a Fitting Full Stop to Buzzcocks Past

In the conclusion of our survey of the post-reformation career of Buzzcocks, PopMatters looks at the final two discs of Cherry Red Records' comprehensive retrospective box-set.


Elysia Crampton Creates an Unsettlingly Immersive Experience with ​'Ocorara 2010'

On Ocorara 2010, producer Elysia Crampton blends deeply meditative drones with "misreadings" of Latinx poets such as Jaime Saenz and Juan Roman Jimenez


Indie Folk's Mt. Joy Believe That Love Will 'Rearrange Us'

Through vibrant imagery and inventive musicality, Rearrange Us showcases Americana band Mt. Joy's growth as individuals and musicians.


"Without Us? There's No Music": An Interview With Raul Midón

Raul Midón discusses the fate of the art in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists," he says.


The Fall Go Transatlantic with 'Reformation! Post-TLC'

The Fall's Reformation! Post-TLC, originally released in 2007, teams Mark E. Smith with an almost all-American band, who he subsequently fired after a few months, leaving just one record and a few questions behind.


Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.


The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.