Toshack Highway vs. Sianspheric: Magnetic Morning/Aspirin Age
Rather than bemoan the shoegazing's demise, perhaps we should be thankful that some of the movement's leading figures are still making quality music. Adam Franklin, former front man and chief songwriter for Swervedriver, has spent his days since the band's last album in 1998 involved in a constantly morphing project called Toshack Highway. Rather than replicate the lush, saturated feel of the Swervedriver recordings, Franklin has used the Toshack Highway to indulge both his electronic and folk muses. His lone full-length, 2000's self-titled album, found Franklin exploring the former, as a supporting cast of musicians helped him add modern production touches and a more experimental flavor to his melodies. The two EPs he's released since, including the one being reviewed here, have a decidedly more lo-tech feel. Swervedriver's layered sheets of feedback are shelved in favor of simple, direct acoustic songs. This approach might be anathema to longtime Swervedriver enthusiasts, but those with patience will find much to like about Franklin's earthy and warm arrangements.
This is not to say that Franklin completely severs the ties with his other outfit. In fact, unlike many side or solo projects, Franklin has always referenced his previous work while under the guise of Toshack. In concert, he has been known to cover Swervedriver a-sides and b-sides. Meanwhile, on this EP, we are treated to a drastic revision of the last song on Swervedriver's 99th Dream, "Behind the Scenes and Sounds of the Times" (here shortened to "The Sounds and the Times"). Franklin recasts the song as a Simon and Garfunkel-styled folk tune, with the melody delicately rendered on acoustic guitar as Franklin's signature drawl does the rest.
Toshack Highway is perhaps best described as an opportunity for Franklin to escape the rigid confines of the Swervedriver sound. He's certainly shown a willingness to explore more atmospheric terrain under this moniker; however, Magnetic Morning is arguably the first to do so without compromising the songs' strong rhythmic frameworks, an attribute that has always made Franklin's compositions stand out when compared to others from similarly feedback-fixated artists. There's nothing earth shattering here, but it's certainly the most pleasant and engaging work in his post-Swervedriver catalogue. Magnetic Morning is devoid of the instrumental clutter that occasionally overwhelmed his full-length efforts. "The Streets That Spin Off", a previously unreleased and refurbished song from the Swervedriver era, is an obvious highlight, with Franklin's trademark swirling guitar lines making a welcome cameo. "(She's Got) Celestial Navigation" temporarily puts a damper on the proceedings, if only because Franklin repeats the refrain "she sat on the wall" ad nauseum, but overall, Magnetic Morning is a smart, often liberating detour and a strong rebuttal to the argument that side projects are inherently inferior enterprises.
If Magnetic Morning is the sound of Franklin expanding his sonic palette, then Aspirin Age represents the logical next step in Sianspheric's steady metamorphosis, even if it's not exactly a step forward. In many ways, Sianspheric are the direct descendants of the original shoegazers, so their inclusion on this EP makes perfect sense. Yet where Franklin and his contemporaries preferred to deliver their fuzzy melodies at bone-crushing volume, Sianspheric take a more relaxed and refined approach. They may lose some of the immediacy of their forebears, but they gain an intoxicating complexity. Songs like "Beneath the Ocean Floor" and "No Space" drift and dive with the grace of Sigur Ros while still maintaining the wavy drones that were the hallmarks of Ride and My Bloody Valentine. Granted, there's nothing profound or particularly memorable on Aspirin Age, but it's a surprisingly pleasant shoegazing retrospective that shows Sianspheric's considerable strengths within their admittedly narrow limitations.