The atmospheric British rock super group, which began as an idea for an experimental noise EP, manages to outweigh the heft of potential behind it.
Minor Victories are the kind of super-group whose roster feels as if it was assembled in a fan’s imagination; a greedy ideal cooked up in stoned conversation rather than a naturally occurring collision of individual talents. Possibly too good to be true, like the Travelling Wilburys of atmospheric British rock, except in this case the execution equals, even outweighs, the heft of the potential behind it.
There are a few not-so-small triumphs behind the making of this auspicious debut. The most notable might be that, now that they have begun to play live, the band only recently started spending time together all in the same room. Minor Victories was finished even before its creators had all been introduced to one another in person. Musicians separated by too many miles and schedules are more often relying on technological advances that have made it far easier to go Postal Service without all the stamps and packaging, piecing together songs and albums by bouncing them back and forth among members.
Minor Victories got its start in the mind of Justin Lockey, lead guitarist for Editors since 2012, who envisioned it as a noise record with “delicate female vocals” over it. Pursuing that detail must have been what first brought Slowdive singer/guitarist Rachel Goswell into the picture, but her voice throughout the album is hardly slight. Instead of bringing prefabricated shoegaze element to drape on top of sonic aggression, Goswell lets the music’s undertow pull her into heavier waters that demand greater exertion to rise up through.
Rounding out the core group along with Lockey’s brother James (of Hand Held Cine Club), the presence of Stuart Braithwaite may not be as immediately recognizable as Goswell’s voice, but the coiling synth line that tightens around the album’s lead single, “A Hundred Ropes”, bears at least a passing resemblance to Mogwai’s more recent output. The amassing gales of “Breaking My Light” that follow, quieter spells repeatedly overtaken by surging string arrangements and thundering percussion, are a clearer giveaway. There’s even a sighting of peacefully droning “Helicon 1”-style guitar off in the middle distance of “Folk Arp”.
It is tempting to posit that, for all of their combined identifiable traits, the math here is not as simple as Mogwai + Editors + Slowdive = Minor Victories. However, what is “Scattered Ashes” if not that very sum? An anxious, driving Editors beat with some of Mogwai’s muscle leaning on the brake as it rolls through Slowdive’s sullen mists, with another commanding presence, James Graham of the Twilight Sad, in the front seat next to Goswell. After Graham’s show-stealing turns here and on former Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat’s recent Where You’re Meant to Be, Graham has more than proven his value as a go-to for lending gravitas. “Scattered Ashes” is their most concise amalgamation; four-and-change minutes of clapping, pounding post-gaze Northern soul so straightforward yet stirring (“Take my life back to the start / Pick up the pieces of my heart”) it can bring poignancy to a laser cat battle.
Where so many star-studded side projects go awry is the temptation of indulgence. Temporarily unleashed from expectations or commercial restraints, musicians have every reason to want to jovially one-up their colleagues or wander off with them into the far corners of their wilder ideas. Minor Victories does not fall into that. There are ambient lulls and controlled demolitions, sometimes kept apart though more often within the same song, but rarely is the path not in sight. The album’s other guest vocalist, Mark Kozelek, even reins in his lyrical verité on “For You Always”, reciprocating verses with Goswell in rhythm with the gently ticking track, though he does manage to drop in mentions of Columbine and Tower Records in a single line.
It’s easy to imagine that somewhere in the creation process it dawned on everyone involved that Minor Victories was becoming something greater than intended; that it took on a life of its own, demanding more of its players than to just show up. On the other hand, in both exigency and tranquility it moves naturally; an unforced alchemy simultaneously specific to and outside of time and place.