|Track||Album / EP|
|She Rides The Waves||Barging Into The Presence Of God EP|
|Sight Of You||Barging Into The Presence Of God EP|
|You Tear The World In Two||The Comforts Of Madness|
|Sea Of Sound||The Comforts Of Madness|
|Time Thief||The Comforts Of Madness|
|Baby Maker||Half-Life EP|
|Hunted||Flesh Balloon EP|
|A Thousand Stars Burst Open||In Ribbons|
Pale Saints (l to r): Chris Cooper (drums), Ian Masters (bass and vocals), Graeme Naysmith (guitars)
Contributor: Rob Morgan
Whatever I was doing in 1989, I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening in the world of indie music. I read the NME and Melody Maker every week but for some reason took very little notice of what they were saying or recommending I listen to, thinking I knew better. I wasn’t listening to John Peel either that year. I’m not sure what the hell I was doing to be honest. I was still in my Factory phase which was now reaping some kind of reward with New Order and Happy Mondays in the charts. I was aware of the burgeoning Madchester scene as my brother kept insisting on blasting the Stone Roses’ debut at me all the time. But I wanted something new, something special, something mine … and I made two discoveries within an hour of each other that December that would be my “something special” for the next few years.
On the one hand it was my first exposure to The Field Mice and hence my entry point into the world of Sarah Records, on the other hand there were a number of songs in the Festive Fifty – such as the VU drone and grind of The Perfect Needle by The Telescopes – which gave notice that there were new bands generating music utilising the mix of noise and melody that My Bloody Valentine had harnessed the previous year with their Isn’t Anything album and the two EPs You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss. I had bought these MBV releases in the summer of 89 and had devoured them eagerly – this was my kind of music, music on the edge of comprehension – soft yet loud, intense and personal, as confused as I felt as a young adult turning 20 felt. I wanted more like this and the two songs by Pale Saints in the Festive Fifty showed me the way. In fact, looking at the Festive 50 listing, Sensitive by The Field Mice sits right next to She Rides The Waves by Pale Saints, I must have had my mind blown twice in minutes that night in December 1989.
So who were Pale Saints and where did they arrive from? The original line-up of the band formed in Leeds in 1987: Ian Masters on bass and vocals, Graeme Naysmith on guitars and Chris Cooper on drums. They issued a few demos around 1988, one of which received a positive review in the short-lived indie focused magazine Underground which compared them to the Wedding Present – but came to the attention of Ivo Watts-Russell, the head of 4AD Records when they played their first London gig in 1989. Lush were also on the bill that night and Pale Saints only signed to 4AD on condition that they signed Lush as well. What a deal!
The first release by Pale Saints was the Barging Into The Presence Of God EP from September 1989 and two songs from this EP ended up in the aforementioned Festive Fifty. Sight Of You is a mid tempo throbbing monster, so simple yet very powerful, guitars arpeggiate around two chords and there’s an element of uncontrolled chaos. And above it all, Ian Masters sings like a heartsore angel, lyrics which cut to the teenage condition of love so perfectly. She Rides The Waves is faster, just as simple musically, only a few chords, but crashes like the titular waves – guitars spit and rage, drums are hammered, and it’s a speedy rush of joy. The third song on the EP can’t compete and settles for atmosphere over melody, but two classics out of three songs isn’t too bad a start to a career.
Their next release was their debut album, issued in February 1990. The Comforts Of Madness is that rare thing, a debut so perfectly formed that anything else the band releases pales in comparison. Every song is a gem, there isn’t a moment wasted across the forty one minutes, even the silences between songs are filled with little noises and extracts of melodies (an idea stolen by My Bloody Valentine a year later on Loveless). And the songs are wonderful, each and every one. From the powerful one two opening punch of Way The World Is and You Tear The World In Two, through the dreamy atmospherics of A Deep Sleep For Steven and Sea Of Sound, across the perfect guitar pop of Language Of Flowers and Insubstantial … Even the sped up cover of Opal’s Fell From The Sun fits the album neatly. Time Thief closes The Comforts Of Madness perfectly – sometimes slow, quiet and foreboding, other times loud, fast and melodic, the tempo speeds up and slows down as the tension rises, guitars and drums hammering to a noisy climax. The song is like a microcosm of the whole album – the off kilter sound the band make, the shifts in tempo, dropped bars, the stops and starts, the swerves into dissonance, the peculiar logic that makes these songs so special. And over it all Ian Masters continues to sing odd words in his high choirboy-like voice, slightly disturbing words. The album hangs together beautifully and should be in any self respecting indie rock fan’s record collection. The Comforts Of Madness was well received and was an indie number one and snuck into the real charts too.
As 1990 progressed, Pale Saints added extra members to play their material live: Ashley Horner on guitar (guesting from his own band Edsel Auctioneer) and Meriel Barham on vocals and guitar, Barham had been the original singer in Lush back when they started. It was this line-up which recorded the Half-Life EP released towards the end of that year. The title track, Half Life Remembered, pounds along on a rhythm section slightly derived from Soon by My Bloody Valentine, with a vocal melody slightly derived from Joybringer by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (itself derived from Gustav Holst’s Jupiter from The Planets). Regardless of the derivation, its a rattling little song, and the rest of the EP showed new directions too. Two Sick Sisters was pure uneasy atmosphere, crackle and noises too dim to ascertain. A Revelation was a skewed pop song with waves of guitar noise, but best of all was Baby Maker. This was Pale Saints in excelsis; guitars as loud as bombs, drums crashing here and there, a chord sequence which swerved when it should go straight, a song with so many twists it’s hard to keep up, and where the hell did those tympani drums in the middle eight come from? And somewhere within, Masters sings “The only way is down” as if he’s secretly relishing the prospect of imminent failure.
By the time the Half-Life EP was released at the end of 1990 there was a groundswell of bands on the indie scene who took similar influences to Pale Saints – Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, AR Kane, Spacemen 3 – and making their own variants on the noise/melody mix. Bands like Ride, Whipping Boy, Lush, Slowdive and Chapterhouse started making inroads into the indie charts (and the Top 40 in the case of Ride). Ride clearly had respect for Pale Saints; they had recorded a respectful cover of Sight Of You for an early Peel session in 1990. But as 1990 progressed to 1991 these bands were all bracketed into the genre name “shoegazing”, named after the band Moose’s tendency to stare at their effects pedals (or their lyrics attached to the floor) during live performances. While this tag may have been handy for the music press to be able to lump a few similar bands together, the bands themselves did not appreciate the pigeonhole and many actively discouraged the use of the term for their music. I suspect Pale Saints were one of those bands. Their music was always too off kilter to be lumped in with the likes of The Catherine Wheel and Revolver; there was always an arty edge to the music. This would be shown on their only release of 1991, the Flesh Balloon EP.
It starts with six and a half minutes of pure unrest named Hunted, a song in 5/8 time (with a few extra beats dropped in here and there, just to confuse anyone who may be attempting to dance to the song). That’s unusual enough, but Masters’ lyrics are dark too – threats, strange laughter, nothing is clear but it’s not happy. And the band match that feeling, leading to a second half where Masters sings peculiar harmonies in the middle distance while a synth plays a forbidding melody and the drums turn martial until the song fades into a sea of echoes. Next was Porpoise, an instrumental which builds on a simple drum machine and bass guitar loop, adding insistent drums, chiming keyboards and rocking guitars – but while it progresses, it doesn’t seem to resolve in any way. Then there’s Kinky Love, a cover of a Nancy Sinatra song sung by Barham and the song which was played on the radio and on the seven inch single and in my opinion is the first crack in Pale Saints’ immaculate track record. Why were they doing a song like this? Why was it played so straight? Where was the tension, the bite, the edge? Finally the EP closed with a demo of a song called Hair Shoes (a title about shoegazing) which did have the tension and edge lacking in Kinky Love. A phalanx of hovering mandolin styled guitars, another guitar like a two note siren and Masters singing quietly and scared. It may have been a demo but it sounded perfect to me. (Incidentally, the astute listener can draw a line from the siren on Hair Shoes, through King Of The Rocket Men by The Clouds to Karma Police by Radiohead.)
By the time the second full Pale Saints album, In Ribbons, was released in March 1992, the music press had turned on the shoegazing scene, even though it was experiencing a kind of commercial breakthrough; Ride had recently had a top ten hit with the juggernaut of sound Leave Them All Behind. But the music press had moved on from last year’s heroes, 1992 wasn’t about gazing at shoes, it was about authentic pain from America (Nirvana and grunge) and unauthentic glam (Suede). Pale Saints’ second album was issued to general indifference although time has been kinder on the album (Pitchfork placed it at #34 in their recent list of the top 50 shoegaze albums, while The Comforts Of Madness is at #21).
For me, In Ribbons is a schizophrenic affair. There’s a clarity in the sound, helped by the production hand of Hugh Jones, and less reliance on feedback, squealing guitars and the linking pieces between songs have disappeared. There’s also still plenty of odd time signatures, dropped beats and off kilter rhythms, not least in the assured album opener Throwing Back The Apple which can’t decide which direction to go in, but still packs a punch, as does Ordeal. Then, Thread Of Light derails the train. It is Barham’s first lead vocal on the album and while the song is pleasant enough, it lacks the twists and turns which had made the previous two songs so thrilling. This happens over and over; a string of songs set up a dark mood then it is spoiled by a Barham song. There’s nothing wrong with her songs, but they stand out amongst the main album and they jar the flow of the record. But when the record is good, it is fantastic. Shell is a ballad that makes the nerves tingle, cellos and acoustic guitar and xylophones and chord sequences that swerve in all the right places. The closing three songs work beautifully together – Never Ending Night sounds like a tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross, Featherframe is a Barham song which fits in well with the album, more martial drums and a return to noise, while A Thousand Stars Burst Open is a glorious closer, as richly textured as Cocteau Twins, euphoric yet melancholic too.
During the late 80s and early 90s there was a trend amongst indie bands to include a free 7 inch single with their vinyl albums, and Pale Saints were no exception to this. However they made a slightly different free single – rather than recording two more songs, they asked the Tintwistle Brass Band to arrange and record two Pale Saints songs. These versions of A Revelation and A Thousand Stars Burst Open are really rather special – they highlight the melodic beauty of Pale Saints’ songs but also give a glimpse of an alternate universe, where shoegazing meets traditional Yorkshire music. A unique record by a unique combination of talents.
After a perfunctory release of Throwing Back The Apple as a single (featuring a cover of Slapp Happy’s Blue Flower which the band had been playing live for over a year), Pale Saints disappeared. A year later, Ian Masters left the band and started a low key solo career, the highlight of which was the Spoonfed Hybrid album from 1993 which takes the unrest of prime Pale Saints and expands the sonic and emotional template exponentially.
Meanwhile Pale Saints continued, much to everyone’s surprise. They recruited former Heart Throbs bassist Colleen Browne and recorded a third album Slow Buildings issued in 1994. This album is viewed by most people who know of its existence as similar to Squeeze by The Velvet Underground, the band name may be on the album jacket but the creative force behind the band isn’t in the credits. I’m being a bit harsh, to be honest. Slow Buildings isn’t a bad album, it’s actually really good in places, and it is a typical mid 90s dream pop record. But it’s just not Pale Saints. If you ignore the rest of the band’s output you won’t feel disappointed, and songs such as Fine Friend and One Blue Hill are quite lovely. But the grit and bite which Ian Masters added to the songs are sorely missed. Pale Saints split up a year or so after the release of Slow Buildings and hardly anyone noticed, times had moved on.
The 21st century has been kind to the original shoegazing bands. Time and distance has leant their music a place in indie music’s pantheon, no longer sneered at by the music press as “last year’s thing”. The music of bands like Slowdive, Ride, Lush and My Bloody Valentine have become revered texts for new generations of shoegazing bands around the world, helped by recent successful reformations and new music by some of the bands associated with the scene.
There have been few calls for Pale Saints to reform, but you never can tell these days. In the meantime, their music is still available, still likely to shock (you will never forget your first listen to The Colour Of The Sky, an uncredited fifth song on the Half-Life EP) and still thrilling to hear. Listen to this playlist, and if that whets your appetite for more then head straight for The Comforts Of Madness – you will not be disappointed.