Edinburgh based band Northern Alliance are part of the loose coalition of musicians known as the Fence Collective. This is the band’s third album coming over two years after the critically acclaimed Hope in Little Things (2003) and Disaster for Scotland (2004). The band consists of Craig Smith (bass, guitars, keyboards, sampler), Doug Johnstone (drums, drum machine, guitars, keyboards, sampler, vocals) and Viv Strachan (vocals).
Having been consistently, in their own words, ‘low-fi’ on previous releases this is the band’s attempts to raise their profile both in terms of music and the public. It’s clear they seek higher things. It is very difficult to categorise the music as Northern Alliance genuinely don’t sound like anyone else, although the closest references are Pink Floyd (Meddle period) or the Canterbury sound of Caravan et al (both of whom are undergoing a renaissance at the moment) and more contemporary bands like Sparklehorse, Arab Strap or Belle and Sebastian. The lyrics are magical and prosaic and read like poetry on the sleeve but are issued in hushed harmonies or deliberately distorted vocals, placed far down in the mix, so as to make them somewhat subsidiary to the overall sound. Northern Alliance are far too intelligent for this to be anything other than deliberate, using purposeful repetition to make the voices another instrument to be added into the sonic mix. And what a wonderful sound it is. They seem to have placed the guitar as high up the treble scale and the bass sounds as low down so as to give them full scope to fill in the rest with swathes of breathtaking sound.
Tracks like the opening, gentle Wonders of the Invisible World and the following Line in the Sand set the pattern, building from a simple keyboard start into what, for Northern Alliance, is a full metal bash (that’s full, not too metal and more of a smite than a bash). There are even feedback driven guitar solos, tracks using vocal distortion and disco drumming in there. How much more ‘hi-fi’ can you get?
Stepping through the lyrics, the theme of the album seems initially one of despair – fearing for the future of their children, the Little Grains of Sands of the title, but close listening shows that there is still a feeling of hope that all may not be lost and that we are a Band of Hope as the closing track suggests.
There’s lots going on in this album – beautiful melodies, intelligent lyrics all set against a carefully worked out wall of sound. It’s an evocative, mystical journey that grows on you each time you listen.