When Neil Halstead started Slowdive in the late 1980s, I doubt he thought his band would become as lauded and legendary as it has become. They’ve become the patron saints of all music swirly and ethereal, where effects pedals take center stage, and everything sounds better when buried beneath 5 or 6 layers of reverb. In fact, if you were to put any 10 bands who tread along more atmospheric paths, I guarantee 9 of them would mention Halstead and Co.; the 10th, on the other hand, would be lying through their teeth.
Thankfully, July Skies makes no bones about their (or his, since the band is one Antony Harding) appreciation. In the liner notes, you’ll find this line: “Thanks… Neil Halstead… who started a dream.” At first listen, such a statement might border on mere fanboy-ism. Harding makes no bones about his desire to make music of only the most gossamer nature, and over the course of 37 minutes, he makes very convincing arguments for his claim.
Although the band is named July Skies, the heart of this album is clearly of a more autumnal shade. The guitars and slight synth-work shimmer and ebb in the way that light filters through leaves, leaving barely tangible patterns on the ground that shift just as quickly as you sense them. With barely any percussion to anchor them, each song is completely free to drift about, with only the barest of melodies to lend them structure. Even then, the melodies are usually kept as simple and sparse as possible, relying on seemingly endless amounts of reverb and delay to fill in the gaps.
There are times when, with all of the wispy guitars, keyboard filigrees, and breathy vocals, Dreaming of Spires gets really vapid. Almost every effort has been taken to envelope, rather than engage the listener. Despite the amount of detail that flows through each song, it can be hard to differentiate, say, “Swallows and Swifts” from “So Sad Today.” One might have a haunting organ melody as opposed to a haunting guitar melody or one might be using a tad more delay, but aside from such details, it can be pointless to try and identify them as individual compositions.
And don’t rely on lyrics either; the vocals have just as many effects layered on them as well, leaving them as intangible and transient as the instrumentation. What lyrics you can make out are usually in the vein of “The rain falls on me/So gently/Ease away the pain/Of today,” which work quite nicely within the music, but don’t leave much for emotional impact.
Of course, all of this is not necessarily a bad thing. It does lend the album a great deal of consistency. Also, the fact that the album’s countless reverberations suggest these songs last far longer than they really do isn’t always disagreeable. On the contrary, there are moments on this album that beckon you to be trapped in, such as when a particular wash of the synthesizer or brush of the guitar strings (e.g., “East Kennet Skies”) hints at the nip you feel in October’s air, or the particular tint the landscape takes when the setting sun hits leaves just turning red and orange. Those are the times when I’m glad the album is a little on the intangible side; I wouldn’t want anything to break the mood. With a song like “East Kennet Skies,” it’s a shame the song clocks under 3 minutes.
July Skies’ influences are certainly obvious (e.g., Slowdive, Cocteau Twins, The Durutti Column), and they’ve gone a very long ways towards emulating and refining the sounds of their roots. But at the same time, there’s little that captures the emotional intensity that you might find in a song such as Slowdive’s “Dagger” or “All Of Us.” However, the true beauty of Dreaming of Spires is that July Skies now has a solid foundation for further releases, all of which I’m now eagerly anticipating. Just be warned, though… my expectations are much higher now.