When I saw The Blue Nile mentioned in the press sheet that came with Halloween, Alaska’s self-titled debut, my curiosity was immediately piqued. I’ve been a fan of The Blue Nile for several years, and had, in fact, been listening to Peace At Last that very week. But I took it with a grain of salt. I’ve read press sheet comparisons that proved wildly inaccurate before: bands invoking the mighty names of Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine with ‘nary a billowy guitar cloud in sight; electronica bands claiming Aphex Twin as a peer but sounding more like Richard D. James piddling around on his “Blue Light Special” Casio; and so on.
But within the first 15 seconds, I knew my fears concerning Halloween, Alaska were completely unfounded. The quartet literally dives into the same lush, atmospheric pools of sound that informed and haunted The Blue Nile’s work, not to mention that of Talk Talk and David Sylvian, to name a few. The entrancing effect of Halloween, Alaska’s music takes hold immediately, as the loping bassline and guitar textures of “You’re It” slow things down and set the tone of what’s to come for the next 45 minutes.
It becomes readily apparent that Halloween, Alaska take great care in crafting their music. Atmosphere isn’t just used for its own sake. Rather, these are meticulously crafted songs, with plenty of atmosphere sure, but also with plenty emotion to go right alongside it. Hence, when “You’re It” closes with the ethereal vocals of a boy’s choir, it feels entirely appropriate and not the least bit cliched or cheesy.
A lot of this soul comes from the band’s lush (I’m probably going to use that word far more than I should in the course of this review, so be warned) instrumentation, full of drowsy synths, shimmering guitars, and tasteful programming that can be either dance‑y (the Walking Wounded-esque house beats of “All The Arms Around You”) or skeletal (the brooding cover of Springsteen’s “State Trooper”).
However, much of the music’s warmth flows from the vocals of James Diers, whose voice lands somewhere between the thick melodramaticism of The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan and Mark Eitzel’s whiskey-tinged croon. Even when Diers is intoning such cryptic fare as “A boy with such sad wings/Should stay off tall buildings/And keep away from high wires/No circus left to join/Nobody, just Des Moines” (“Des Moines”), there’s something unabashedly romantic and forlorn about it.
My favorite track on the album, the sleepwalking “Halloween,” finds Diers plaintively crooning “Well, I’m not looking for anything tonight” before becoming enveloped by watery keys and distant, echoing programming — with it’s graceful sense of flow, it’s the best Bows song Luke Sutherland never wrote. “The Four Corners” is vaguely reminiscent of Riki Michele (minus the voice, of course) as it winds its way through various sonic territories, weaving together rich late-night textures, sensual rhythms, and Diers’ voice in a very beguiling manner. And the aforementioned cover of “State Trooper” is the album’s most haunting moment, with a very stark synth giving way to brooding guitars and Diers’ plaintive cries of “Mr. State Trooper/Please don’t stop me.”
I first delved into this CD while driving through Missouri on my way to Kansas City. Perhaps being all by my lonesome made me a bit more susceptible to this album’s atmospherics, but whatever the case, I’ve become completely taken by it. I’ve made it a point not to play it too much, lest the songs’ beauty somehow wears off. This disc is so smooth and effortless that, if I’m not careful, it could be the only thing I listen to for the whole week. But that hasn’t happened yet. Every time I put on the album, I find myself coming under its spell just as surely as when I first listened to it.