Saturday, August 22, 2009

Old Music: Modern English's After the Snow (1982)

In a strange paradox, I feel like, most of the time, this album is underrated or forgotten about because of its one huge song. Forgotten because of popularity and perhaps a bit of over saturation. Of course, 'I Melt With You' is the definition of classic. One of those perfect pop singles that defined an era and, through its universally articulate lyrics, simultaneously transcended that era for generations to come. Wonderful stuff. And one of those rare moments where a song is so good it feels, in retrospect, like a poetic victory for truly creative and genuine music.

But what about the album that that fantastic slice of pure pop magic came from?

Well, my friend, I'm glad you asked.

Originally released in 1982 on the British 4AD label, it must have sounded like an epic masterpiece at that point. Foreshadowing where fellow post-punkers-turned-pop bands like the Cure and New Order would go in the near future, it can now be asserted as the most perfect mashup of arty post-punk dissonances and pop catchiness. Its closest contemporaries were probably similarly minded albums like the Sound's All Fall Down or Echo and the Bunnymen's Heaven Up Here (and this one makes the most sense because it was magnificently produced by Hugh Jones, who handles production duties on After the Snow just a year after his work with the Bunnymen).

But we're a bit ahead of ourselves.

Allow me to indulge the Bunnymen comparison for just a bit more...

It's fitting that Hugh Jones worked with Echo on Heaven Up Here —perhaps the darkest and artiest album of their catalogue— in the same year that Modern English made their first album; itself a strange and drugged out affair that was certainly more goth than anyone would have guessed if they were working backwards through the band's discography.

I mean, just have a look at the cover.

The music isn't excessively weird, it's just much more psychedelic and downright trippy than most people would imagine for what is essentially a new wave album. A single (which can now be appropriately viewed as somewhat of a proto-shoegaze tune) was released and promptly ignored. After the band released Mesh and Lace, they were dubbed competent Joy Division knockoffs and nothing more was thought of the issue.

A year or so later, in a turn of events nobody in the most astute of logic would have foreseen, they re-emerged with 'I Melt With You' and had a minor British hit.

Its accompanying album was a fantastic mish mash of uber-pop, lushly layered arrangements, reflective melancholy and a toned-down but still present experimental edge.

Seriously, as rock albums go, this one is as about as diverse as they come.

The albums starts off with the wonderful second single 'Someone's Calling' and its excellent opening simile: 'Turning round as if in flight.' That's a descriptive lyric for this album, as well. The whole thing has the feeling of changing direction, slowly and methodically, as to not miss anything in the process.

From there, the rest of side one presents the band at their boundary-pushing best. If you just hear the songs on the surface, there will be plenty to latch onto: hooky vocals, catchy riffs, a dynamite rhythm section. But if you really sit down with these songs, there are layers upon layers of things about them that will reward repeated diligent listens. The best argument for that is that one-two punch of the stuttery and poignant 'Life in the Gladhouse' which is followed by the big epic and album spiritual centerpiece 'Face of Wood.' Sounding like the Cure before they even managed to get there, it's an absolutely beautiful song that finds a balance between the first album's artsy ambiance and the band's newly discovered sense of melody and songcraft.

(Check out an early run-through of the tune the band did for John Peel — definitely leaning more towards the artsy side here)

Side two kicks off with 'I Melt With You' and, I'll just say it right now: it's the poppiest thing on the album, by far. Anyone who bought After the Snow anticipating another seven or eight songs like 'I Melt With You' got ripped off, plain and simple.

It's funny that they chose to start side two off with the most accessible thing on the album because the rest of the songs are much more subdued and meditative. The title track and 'Carry Me Down' seem to mirror the initial sentiment of change that started with 'Someone's Calling.' Even the more paranoid and darker 'Tables Turning' that closes the album retains a specific vibe started by the title track. It's amazing how much ground this album covers in just eight songs and that it does that so convincingly is even more impressive.

It took about a year for the album to be picked up for North American release on the Sire label. It was the band's first American release. Here's the original vinyl issue on Sire/4AD:

And the back cover, which some otherwise loving previous collector neglected in the bottom left corner (which is strange because my copy of the band's follow-up Ricochet Days has a similar tear in the same spot, but on the front cover; must've been a spill that wasn't discovered right away):

The front of the inner sleeve:

The back of the inner sleeve:

And the labels:

When the album was reissued on CD by 4AD in the early 90's, they changed the cover:
But the great thing about the reissue is the bonus tracks that were added. Despite somewhat superfluous single edits of 'I Melt With You' and 'Someone's Calling', the rest of the bonus tracks are great and well worthwhile. Besides the longer (and superior) version of 'Life in the Gladhouse,' you get the two b-sides from the After the Snow sessions: the amazing should've been a-side 'The Prize' and the atmospheric eleven minute epic 'The Choicest View' which is just about as weird and willfully inaccessible as the band ever got.

It was a grassroots hit in the US until 'I Melt With You' was included on the soundtrack for Valley Girl. At which point, the popularity became too much for the young band and they inevitably pulled in different directions.

The follow-up to After the Snow was the also not to be missed, but not quite as great Ricochet Days (which may receive its own highlight in this column at some point in the future). The album had nothing as distinguishable and uniquely appealing as 'I Melt With You' and subsequent albums found frontman Robbie Grey trying to carry on the band himself and recapture the popularity that 'I Melt With You' brought him earlier on. He never was able to.

After the Snow is one of the best albums in the entire post-punk cannon. Easily one of my favorite albums ever, I still get a little annoyed when I bring up Modern English and all most people know is 'I Melt With You.'

Any self-respecting new wave fan should know this album front to back.

It should go without saying that it gets the seal of approval:


1 comment:

john sweet said...

insanely excellent album. i bought the 12" single of "i melt w/ you" way back when, it had "someone's calling" and "life in the gladhouse" on the flipside, all three songs just blew me out of the room. had to immediately run out and buy the album.

found "ricochet days" in the 99 cent bin a few years later. how sad. "rainbow's end" and "machines" are both the equal of anything on ATS, as is the title track.

and then the band went to hell in the blink of an eye and never recovered....