Spirit Flags by A Northern Chorus (Review)

I envy A Northern Chorus for having been able to create something this gorgeous.
Spirit Flags, A Northern Chorus

It almost feels like a crime to use terms like “shoegazer” or “post-rock” to describe A Northern Chorus. Or, at the very least, an oversimplification. The bands to which those terms are usually applied often sound like they’re merely trying to copy their heroes. They do their best to figure out that perfect pedal setting to create the same shimmering sounds of Slowdive’s “Just For A Day.” Or they copy the quiet/loud dynamics and map their songs’ progressions along the exact same set of coordinates used by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and many others.

Now, I won’t lie to you. There’s something about those aesthetics that always affects me no matter how many times I hear it, regardless of whether it was performed by seasoned veterans or some young pup. However, Spirit Flags exists on a totally different level.

Of course, the band’s shoegazer roots are obvious throughout the album. The band employs many a gossamery veil of sound, and there are ethereal voices and instrumentation galore, not to mention a stunning climax or two.

But the album rarely ever feels constrained by the band’s musical style and its obvious earmarks. What prevents Spirit Flags from sinking to that level is the meticulous, heartfelt care used to craft these songs. From the very start, A Northern Chorus gets it right, suffusing their sound with a vast, sweeping sense of beauty that proves just as affecting as any of the band’s sonics, if not moreso.

The album opens with “Song & I,” which finds chiming guitars and reverbed drums wrapping themselves around sighing vocals. The song is quite nice but really serves more to whet your appetite, giving you a taste of the more beautiful things to come. However, it does display one reason why A Northern Chorus’ music feels so solid.

Whereas some dreampop afficianadoes seem content with burying the listener under glaciers of sound (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you), A Northern Chorus never lets you forget that they’re writing songs, first and foremost. Because of this attention to songwriting, the band has a solid framework which lends shape and form to their music’s beauty.

After “Song & I,” it’s off to the races with “Red Carpet Blues,” a careening instrumental. It’s the shortest track on the album, but the band explores quite a bit of territory. One delightful melodic twist after another reveals itself, dancing beneath a shower of silvery guitar spangles and breezy percussion. It’s the most uptempo track on the album, and considering the more melancholy, pensive material to come, it’s a nice little diversion.

Although it’s the third track, the aptly-titled “Fragile Day” feels like the first real song on the album. Two of the band’s greatest assets make their first real appearances here, the first being the band’s gorgeous male/female harmonies, courtesy of Pete Hall and Stu Livingstone, and Julie MacDonald. The trio’s vocals love to sigh and drift by lazily, and their fragile composition perfectly complements the delicate instrumentation, especially the string and flute arrangements. These arrangements are the band’s second great asset, and they’re used liberally throughout Spirit Flags to great effect.

On “Fragile Days,” the flute (also contributed by MacDonald) and strings (by Sarah MacGregor, who departed shortly after recording) strike up a slow waltz with the weeping guitars, drifting through the song and ending it on a perfectly bittersweet coda. Although the lyrics are a tad on the achy, melodramatic side (“And all I see is rain/It’s here again/I am sorry/And all I know is fear/It must be near/‘Cause I’m falling”), the music’s slow beauty allows the band to easily live up to their own words.

“Let The Parrots Speak For Themselves” is the song that really opened my eyes to A Northern Chorus — I first heard it on the incredible “Blisscent II” comp — and it still continues to floor me to this day. As the band winds gracefully through haunting vocals and orchestration, it’s a perfect example of their ability to craft music with both deep emotion and fine detail. One might be tempted to throw out Godspeed You! Black Emperor comparisons as the band unleashes a rolling wave of guitars and ghostly voices in the song’s closing minutes, but A Northern Chorus moves with considerably more restraint and less bombast.

“Let The Parrots Speak For Themselves” flows into “Take Your Canvas Everywhere,” which starts out with the sparsest of guitar melodies (more a tendril, really) and an aching male falsetto before transforming into a downpour of guitars, strings, drums that descends all around the listener. It’s tempting to make at least a Sigur Rós comparison, but A Northern Chorus still stands on their own.

Indeed, I’m consistently amazed at how well A Northern Chorus holds their own against their obvious peers. “Mombassa” is the album’s only real misstep, the only moment where A Northern Chorus risks sounding derivative. The band creates a dirge-like atmosphere that suggests stormclouds gathering above desolate wastelands, while fiery proclamations about our risen Lord and Saviour ring out courtesy of a raging preacher.

Though certainly dramatic, it all seems rather, well, obligatory in today’s post-Godspeed musical climate. The band has already proven that their music has enough power of its own without having to resort to such theatrics and their inclusion feels a bit heavyhanded and awkward.

The album ends with a trio of gorgeous songs, beginning with “I Dreamt The World Had Ended.” Although the name implies an apocalyptic dirge (and no doubt, some bands would use the song title as license for just such an attempt), A Northern Chorus renders something far more exquisite and subtle. Acoustic guitars, chimes, and lazy vocals give the song a daydream quality, as if the singer is lazily observing the Apocalypse from a nearby hillside. Although the song picks up a bit at the end with horns providing additional emphasis, restraint is shown again, and it ends on a nicely wistful note.

“Eilan Donan” is similar in sound and scope to tracks like “Take Your Canvas Everywhere” and “Louder Than Love,” moving from billowing guitars and strings to a huge, dramatic climax that would make the Sigur Ros boys green with envy. Even though the sounds are nothing we haven’t heard before (as if anything is these days), the conviction and passion that A Northern Chorus pours into the music makes them feel new all over again.

The album ends with the band (or perhaps an angelic choir, I can’t tell the difference) bidding a poignant farewell as they’re enveloped by the rich, textured sounds of “Flag In Hand,” creating one of the most reassuring musical moments I’ve experienced all year.

Simply put, Spirit Flags is a stunning album. And having enjoyed it for several weeks now, I feel I have a small confession to make. I envy A Northern Chorus for having been able to create something this gorgeous, for having the experience of combining their talents and inspirations to create music as completely affecting as this.

Having been in bands myself, I know I’m glossing over the tension and frustration that are naturally part of the songwriting and recording process. But I would hope that those things are, at worst, a distant memory when seen in the light of moments as transcendant as those that define this album.

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