High Above The Storm – s/t

High Above The Storm - s/t

High Above The Storm - s/t

The debut album from British quartet High Above the Storm begins harmlessly enough, with magnetic synth tones that gradually give way to slightly more unsettling waveforms and simmering electronic textures. For a fleeting moment, it could even pass for one of the many pastoral moments on your favorite Brian Eno record. Yet it’s merely an exercise in foreshadowing, a slow to build precursor that segues into the first of many engrossing ambient epics, replete with droning keyboards, FX-treated guitars, a dash of white noise, and loads of vocal reverb. While there are unavoidable moments of comparison with the likes of Elbow, Depeche Mode, Secret Machines, and even Wilco over its 45-minute length, this record showcases a surprising degree of originality. Likely to be less shocking – given the band’s name – is the hefty dosage of melodrama that is injected into each of the album’s eight tracks.

The first cut, which eases itself in by way of the aforementioned “Dragonfly,” segues into “Time Of Our Lives” with a burbling synth and bass groove that has layers of texture deliberately added to it over the course of two and a half minutes. It all unfolds in such a natural and captivating fashion that you may not be aware of the absent lyrics until vocalist Louis Warner tentatively begins to sing after more than half of the song has already drifted by. Working on a foundation of reverb-soaked guitar, galloping drums, and swirling synthesizers, Warner croons, “We had the time of our lives / night after night.” It’s an affecting midnight revelry of love in the darkest hours.

“Horizon” sounds at first dismissible – just plainly strummed guitar rhythms, ethereal piano chords, and Warner singing like a less impassioned Guy Garvey. But as is the case with most of this album’s material, things are not always as they seem. As the song gains intensity with soaring string orchestrations and laser beam synths, it becomes clear that this sullen ballad, which began in such a dark and lonely place, is slowly but steadily heading toward the light. In a final twist, it all ends in a cacophony of samples, loops, drones, and frenetic drumming: an assemblage of near-white noise.

High Above the Storm’s low point is also its most straightforward attempt at rocking out. “Last Year’s Man,” with all of its clattering cymbals, distorted guitars, and abrasive synthesizers, combines the druggy psychedelic stylings of Secret Machines with the mild industrial flourishes of late-90’s acts like Gravity Kills and Stabbing Westward.

The remainder of the album relies heavily on the abilities of drummer-turned-pianist Jason Emberton. Of five tracks, all but one begins with work on the ivories. In one instance (“Paris/Demons Are Forever”), the extended piano harmonies and Emberton’s light touch on the kit conveys a trace of jazz, not unlike something you’d hear Brad Mehldau attempt. “For Maurice” begins with the type of wandering, hypnotic piano melodies you’d expect from a new age purveyor like George Winston, but it ends with a muscular drum and bass groove that’s more akin to the prog rock of Tool. Both are performed with exceptional verve. In the six minutes between the two, there’s some deft application of the trumpet too.

It’s the austere and wintry “Good For Me” that triggers the biggest goose bumps, however. Featuring glitchy Thom Yorke electronics, a shimmering blanket of guitar delay, and solemn keyboard tones that bounce across the mix, Warner’s assertion of “You might find it’s been overdone / but it still feels good for me” feels devastatingly sincere. It is only the crude and ill-conceived vocal samples in the tune’s bridge that keep this from being a truly knockout song.

This is an album that, as the saying goes, demands repeated listens. But unlike most records that require multiple spins, this one will undoubtedly intoxicate you on the first go around. Without question, it’s a must-have for 2009.