THE PALE SAINTS
The Comforts Of Madness (30th Anniversary Re-masters)
1989 was a vintage year for so many reasons – not least the fact that so many great albums came out during that hallowed 12 month period (The Stone Roses’ debut, New Order’s Technique, The Cure’s Disintegration, Jesus And Mary Chain’s Automatic, Band Of Holy Joy’s Manic Magic Majestic, Pixies’ Doolittle, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, Lou Reed’s New York, Ultra Vivid Scene’s debut, Band Of Susan’s Love Agenda, and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising…to name just a dozen).
Year zero of the new decade, 1990, spawned an equally diverse glut of year-end personal favourites by the likes of Happy Mondays, Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, Neil Young And Crazy Horse, Fatima Mansions, Pixies (again), Band Of Holy Joy (again!), Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, Angelo Badalamenti/David Lynch and Mazzy Star…but the best of the lot in my own opinion arrived right at the start of the new year.
Newly signed to 4AD records, Leeds-based trio Pale Saints released their debut EP Barging Into The Presence Of God the previous year, 1989. Said EP contained their signature ‘hit’ song, the swooning and melodic indie classic Sight Of You, which also featured in John Peel’s festive fifty at the end of that year – at number 11 (one of the b-sides ‘She Rides The Waves’ also figured at number 25).
Through no real fault of their own, Pale Saints found themselves lumped in with many other similar bands of the time (Ride, Lush, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Telescopes, Moose, etc) under the ‘shoegazer’ scene – that took the post-Mary Chain template of ‘dream pop’ and noise/ feedback / guitar FX and distortion which was already pushed to ever more extremes by the revitalised My Bloody Valentine on their 1988 album Isn’t Anything.
However, Pale Saints also kept a lot of their initial jangle pop sensibilities intact – and their sound sometimes resembled earlier post C-86 acts such as McCarthy and fellow Leeds-formed indie legends The Wedding Present. In fact I would wager that one McCarthy song in particular from that era – Red Sleeping Beauty – was effectively the sonic template for Pale Saints: there is an uncanny resemblance in the way the busy drums anchor the sound of the melodic bass and choirboy vocals on that song which bring to mind the bass/vocals of Pale Saints frontman Ian Masters.
It was thus pretty damned smart of 4AD Records to usher in the new decade – and the very first of their 1990 releases – with a debut album from one of its brightest new hopes (as voted by Melody Maker), and, to be absolutely fair, they did not disappoint.
It’s hard to believe that three decades has already elapsed since this remarkable album was first released, but the most gratifying thing of all is how it still sounds like it could have been issued a few weeks ago! It really has withstood the test of time.
The moment the needle drops onto the vinyl record, you sensed that this was a debut album that was quite unlike any other. What other LP starts with a frantic drum solo for god’s sake? Followed almost immediately by the band going hell for leather apeshit with crazed guitar and bass manglings? This one! But don’t be discouraged by this rather surprising opening salvo…this was the band merely exhibiting their gleeful perversity, as the opening track proper Way The World Is kicks in after 30 seconds with a supremely confident chiming guitar and bass intro.
So is this Art rock? Avant garde noise? Chaotic thrashing? None of this and all of this! Pale Saints are revelling in messing with your perceptions here and this is what makes The Comforts Of Madness such a truly satisfying and rewarding listen – even for the first time.
The album has no gaps between the tracks – it is designed to be listened to as a cohesive whole: one number running into the next, and the band take this maxim to a gloriously inspired level, inserting strange ghostly links or bizarre off kilter passages between each listed track to tie the whole thing together into one complete continuous listening experience.
This shrewd tactic arose directly from the way they performed their live shows, where they would veer off into all kinds of sonic adventures to fill the gaps between the songs which would otherwise be filled with awkward silences and re-tunings of instruments or – perish the thought – speaking to the audience.
Interestingly, one very celebrated and hugely influential and much-eulogised album which arrived later the following year (November 1991) would adopt this exact same method and would then get all the plaudits for it. None other than My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. All those weird links between tracks on a ‘classic shoegaze album’ huh? Well, sorry to rain on their parade, but Pale Saints clearly did it first!
Thus: Way The World Is crashes majestically into the bleached out guitar fuzz that signals the next track You Tear The World In Two, which in turn steamrollers its way towards its thunderous climax and then stopping dead via some eerie ambient guitar atmospherics before the dreamy centrepiece of the first half Sea Of Sound – which is so languidly beautiful and majestic it could be a rewrite of some long-lost 1970s prog-pop epic for all we know.
True Coming Dream, which follows, reverts back to the frantic tempo of the first two songs with its almost Wedding Present-like bass intro which accelerates prodigiously before exploding into the surging intro. After two cacophonously exhilarating minutes, the track decelerates again only to flow seamlessly into the curiously whimsical bongo-and-dulcimer-led lullaby Little Hammer, which closes the first half.
The second half is even more astonishing – as if our expectations of the band being able to sustain this quality throughout was ever going to be called into question.
Insubstantial is one of their strongest songs – live as well as on record. When it climaxes (again!), the band veer off into what is probably the most frenzied wig out of them all – careening and bludgeoning their way through 30 seconds of pure gleeful anarchic atonality rather like naughty kids jumping all over freshly-laid wet cement, with Chris Cooper’s demented drum rolls and Graeme Naysmith meting so much abuse to his guitar it sounds as if it is having the living daylights throttled out of it. It’s this distressed mewling at the very end that sounds for all the world like a cat (the one that graces the record cover?) being strangled!
The segue straight into the bass intro that opens A Deep Sleep For Steven is nothing short of genius. This track is immense, a huge sonorous reverbed fog formed from colossal ice sheets of treated guitar, insistent ringing basslines and waves of cavernous, crashing drums. This is narcotic dream music in excelsis, effectively reprising the sound perfected by noise/dream pop pioneers A.R Kane a couple of years earlier. If anybody were to ask what the definitive shoegazing sound was like – then point them to this track. It simply wipes the floor with the competition!
The Language of Flowers restores the fast paced tempos once again, a beautiful jangly pop moment with Ian’s choirboy vocals showcased to the fore, before its abrupt fade into the stampeding intro of their brilliant cover of Opal’s Fell From The Sun, which maintains the adrenalised momentum.
The sublime Sight Of You is next, albeit in rerecorded and speeded up form from the EP version, before the album closes with the schizoid tempo-shifting tour de force that is Time Thief: alternating between slower verses pinned by Chris’s martial tom rolls, Ian’s chorused basslines, and curious piano chimes before then swiftly gathering speed and bursting into the noisy catharsis of the refrains. A pause for breath, and then they repeat the whole thing all over again.
When this track smashes to a triumphant close, you are led to believe the album is over, but the distinctly unsettling noise of what sounds like a distressed cockatoo squawking which follows after a short silence tells you that this band have plenty of pranks lined up their sleeves.
The second disc/LP in this sumptuously packaged 30th anniversary issue features their one and only John Peel Session as well as many demos of all of the album tracks. These versions are not that dissimilar from the finished versions – give or take slight tweaks in tempo or arrangement/production. This is because the tracks were so fully formed anyway before they were finally released that if anything it is testament to how the band were already confident and assured in their approach to recording the album. And the final results speak clearly for themselves.
Pale Saints were never that prolific: They would issue just four EPs (one per year) and only one more album (1992’s more reflective In Ribbons) before Masters departed in 1993, and though that album is also a very strong work in its own right and more consistently produced, with some truly beautiful moments and some tracks written and sung by fourth Saint Meriel Barham – who would join the band for the next two EPs Half Life (1990) and Flesh Balloon (1991) – it lacks the sheer verve and exhilaration of their more focused and barnstorming debut.
Such a consistently great record from start to finish and with barely a weak point anywhere in sight. This remains the band’s finest recording and greatest artistic statement. It is just such a shame that it has never been held in the same high regard and esteem as so many other similar albums of its genre. For me it is the equal of – if not better than – the much feted Loveless! And if that proclamation is regarded by some as heresy then frankly dear, I don’t give a damn.
All words by Martin Gray