THE TWILIGHT SAD
RUBY LOUNGE, MANCHESTER
10th February 2012
Every once in a while there’s a debut album that seems to come from nowhere – no hype-bubble, no warning – and blow you away. It happens less often these days – not because music isn’t as good as it used to be, but because most of the time if you keep one ear on the internet and/or go to a lot of new music oriented festivals you’ll be aware of bands long before the debut drops.
Maybe I was just looking the other way on this occasion, but it wasn’t until a tip from a Scottish mate of exemplary taste piqued my curiosity that I found myself towards the end of 2007 buying an album whose release earlier that year had passed me by. It was “Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters” by The Twilight Sad and darkness seeped from every track. It got right under my skin and I wasn’t alone: Scottish culture mag The Skinny eventually rated it the country’s second best album of the decade (after Idlewild’s “100 Broken Windows” but ahead of such luminaries as Mogwai, Primal Scream, Belle & Sebastian and Biffy Clyro) and even the notoriously picky Pitchfork gave it 8.6 out of 10. It still sounds stunning and unique, unsettling words sung in a powerful heavy accent over a dense fog of post-rock inspired guitar and dark post-punk rhythms.
The problem is, what do you do for the rest of your life when your debut album seems unsurpassable? Their second, “Forget the Night Ahead”, was darker still – but whilst acclaimed by fans and critics alike it didn’t quite have the impact of the first. There have been internet rumours since before Christmas that the third is going to be something special – but four days after its release, a burgled mailbox and the depressing remains of an empty Amazon envelope with my name on mean I have heard nothing of “No One Can Ever Know” bar one preview track posted online.
The anticipation is actually quite exciting – considerably more so than the run-of-the-mill indie rock presented by support band Let’s Wrestle, who remind us of those endless bands you get round about the 5pm slot at festivals where you know you’ve heard the name on 6Music but you can’t remember a thing about them, and by the end of the evening you’ve forgotten them again. Local openers Burning Buildings had showed more promise with grungey fuzz and post-rock influences coming through, but they’d gone on very early and we only caught the end of the set – their handing out of various infant school orchestra style percussion instruments so the crowd could help with their last song was a nice touch. And now it’s time – and looking back from a long-bagged front spot it’s good to see a nearly full venue. The Twilight Sad have always gone down well in Manchester where their unsettlingly gloomy but powerful sound has a number of ancestors, but the “new Scottish alternative” vote’s a little split tonight with their friends and former tourmates Errors playing over in Salford. Please don’t do this again, gents, OK? Cheers.
From the first notes it’s clear that The Twilight Sad haven’t been resting on their laurels with this new album – quite the opposite. The opening “Kill It In The Morning” is as good an introduction as can be to where they’re at these days – still dark, but angry. Singer James Graham – a man not unaccustomed to being described as intense – almost spits the words as Andy MacFarlane’s guitar slices through synth tones and Mark Devine’s death-rattle drums echo starker and harder than ever before. There’s space in the sound, the rhythms are more metronomic, the overall effect a kind of bristling paranoia – but fear not, they’re still very loud. Reduced to a three-piece on record, the five-strong live band is a formidable force: people scramble to reclaim drinks balanced on the speakers, this PA is going to take a battering tonight. There’s a lot more keyboard in the newer stuff – lush, rich and just a little bit eerie – and not for the first time they remind me of The Chameleons, at once tense and beautiful, with just the right mixture of light and shade. I’m not sure anyone has really done that so well since, and that was a long time ago.
With a set drawn from across the three albums, it feels like the pieces are falling into place. That debut, represented early on by “That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy” seemed to be all about the loss of innocence set against great widescreen landscapes; “Reflection of the Television” typifies the suffocating claustrophobia of “Forget the Night Ahead”, whilst the new songs – long descriptive titles eschewed for the short-and-to-the-point likes of “Sick” and “Nil” – are the sound of the battle-scarred finally breaking out, guns blazing and looking for blood. In my head James has got the “Taxi Driver” mohawk to match. In reality he hasn’t, of course, and actually seems like quite a nice chap – when not vocalising some kind of catharsis he’s happy to chat to the crowd, buoyed by their enthusiasm. He even gets an attack of the giggles when his near-unaccompanied opening lines of “Cold Days From the Birdhouse” are interrupted by shouts from the crowd. And whilst the final “At the Burnside” isn’t exactly a party tune, the band leave the stage smiling to applause that’s nothing short of rapturous.
Overall it would be hard to find fault with any aspect of this set; a couple of people tell me they thought the sound could have been better but from where I was standing, head practically in the speaker, they sounded immense. A replacement copy of “No One Can Ever Know” was quickly purchased, and it’s barely been out of my ears since; by the next morning we have convinced ourselves we urgently need to go and see them again before this tour is over. Every once in a while there’s a debut album that seems to come from nowhere and blow you away, what’s rather less common is the band that still does that a few years and a couple of albums later.