It strikes me that all of the blogs I’ve written in this series so far are reflecting about my discovery of bands/musicians that I was previously either unaware of or unconvinced by. Sometimes, though, the most staggering experiences with new music come about when you listen to the latest offering by a band you already know and love. Sometimes the new offering from a favourite band is disappointing – after all, we all have our favourite albums, and it’s simply not feasible that everything a band produces is better than everything you loved them for in the first place; but sometimes you’re left flailing for superlatives as your favourite musicians knock it clean out of the park, delivering something that hits home so hard that you simply didn’t see it coming. The effect is magnified if the music the band succeed in blowing you away with is especially different or unexpected in itself.
I’ve told the story many times over the years how I came to fall deeply in love with All About Eve. A chance viewing of one of their early singles on The Chart Show, courtesy of ITV, blew my 15-year old mind and I never looked back. They’ve been one of my favourite bands ever since – and when I say one of my favourite bands, I’m talking right up there with Pink Floyd; the sort of band that I long ago ran out of superlatives to apply to. What their music has meant to me I can scarcely put into words.
In 1990, the seemingly unthinkable happened, and much-loved guitarist Tim Bricheno left the band. I was devastated. Naturally, as a fan I had no idea about the reasons for his departure at the time, and – as is the case with fandom, my disappointment was more about me than about the band or Tim. Fans usually don’t have the self-awareness to stop and think that there may be very sound reasons why someone might leave a band, or be asked to leave; we’re always concerned, first and foremost, with how unwelcome it is for us to attempt to accept that something we loved is broken. Being a fan of a band in this situation is, I suppose, a bit like being a child of parents undergoing a divorce. Loyalties are divided. Often, you find yourself taking sides in some sort of gut reaction only to realise later that there’s always more than one side to a story. I will admit that I spent weeks in an All About Eve-related funk. “It’ll never be the same”, I told myself. I found myself finding it hard to play All About Eve’s music, as it seemed to be a reminder of what I had lost. I simply didn’t have the life experience back then to realise that good things could come out of change. But I was about to be taught just that by this band that I had been besotted with.
For Tim’s replacement was none other than Marty Willson-Piper of The Church, a band whose charms I had no sooner succumbed to than Marty’s appointment to All About Eve was announced. It was one of those pieces of musical news that just seemed like impossible good news, like I was walking around in a dream and would wake up any moment. My original despair at Tim’s departure was replaced with a giddy kind of excitement. But my wildest hopes didn’t prepare me for what was to come. The band’s third album, Touched By Jesus was, quite simply, astounding. It instantly became my favourite thing they’ve ever done, and it probably still is. The passion and invention invested in that album and the associated original material that was relegated to the accompanying single releases still astounds me. It was a veritable explosion of creativity, an outpouring of energy that staggers me to this day. Most bands go their entire careers without experiencing anything like that period. All About Eve were unstoppable; if they had somehow been transfigured into an archer, they’d have hit the bullseye dead centre every time. I was beyond reassured; my fandom, which I had been almost ready to lay down, burned with the heat of a thousand suns. I went to all but a couple of the band’s UK tour dates in support of the album. Every night they blew me away.
Of course, I hadn’t stopped to think about what might happen next. Obviously if they had just made Touched By Jesus II, I’d have loved it – but at the same time, I know I would have felt that they were playing it safe, that such an album was merely a reflection of something I already loved, another lap around the same racecourse that I already knew like the back of my hand. In short, it would be an echo – a beloved echo, but an echo nonetheless. That would have been my perspective. I never paused to consider how the band might be feeling about making the follow-up.
Excitedly, I kept tabs on the band’s activities as they busied themselves with making their next record. Then, in the summer of 1992, a padded envelope arrived at my gaff that contained a postcard and a cassette – a short sampler cassette with short snippets from several of the songs from the band’s new album, Ultraviolet. The bands mailing list had sent them out to everyone who had returned one of those little cards you used to find inside physical copies of albums, saying, “If you want regular updates on new releases from All About Eve…“. Naturally I had done so; this was my reward. A sneak peek. To say I was excited to hear what the band had been up to would be a massive understatement. I ran to my stereo, inserted the cassette, pressed play, and…
What. Is. This?!
The snippets of the new album sounded nothing at all like I could possibly have anticipated. The band’s usual sonic style was gone, replaced with a psychedelic wash of feedback guitar and eerie organ, Julianne’s incredible vocals floating amongst the seeming chaos. The snippets were short – between 30 seconds and minute in length – which gave little idea of song structure. The general effect on this long-term fan was complete disorientation. It wasn’t unpleasant; it was just not at all what I thought I would be hearing. I played that cassette many times. The seeming disconnect between the band’s recent material and the new songs never seemed to shrink. For better or worse, the band seemed to be re-inventing themselves, taking a new approach to writing, crafting a new sound. I felt in my bones that this was going to cause problems with some listeners, as I’d seen other bands – like Marillion – change their approach to some degree, and had seen how some of their fans had rebelled at the perceived changes. And suddenly, like a light bulb had been switched on, I realised just how ridiculous that mindset was. Even before their new album had turned up, All About Eve had taught me possibly the most important lesson I’ve learned in all my years of music fandom: that change is not only inevitable, but welcome, and only fools try to roll back the tide. That you can only judge how you feel about music by hearing what it is, not dwelling on what it is not.
Just prior to the album’s release, the band released the Phased EP, essentially a single backed with three other tracks from the sessions. I sat down to my first listen with some trepidation, but also with the freshly taught lesson about expectations running around my head. Think about what it is, not what it isn’t, I thought to myself. I pressed play, and the four songs played. Nothing had really prepared me for what I heard, not even that well-intentioned promotional cassette. And yet… Phased itself was wistfully pretty; Mine was surprisingly intense, the thrashed-out ending predating Marillion’s much-admired King by three years… and then the instrumental mix of Infrared arrived and with it the eureka moment that I had subconsciously been waiting for. This was All About Eve at their spookiest and most intense, a fusillade of lysergic guitar, crystalline organ, swirling feedback and thundering drums as the piece built into a wonderful, desolate hurricane; almost Lovecraftian in its echoing immensity. I felt a bit like the Nazi soldiers must have felt at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It certainly melted my face.
And then, a further moment of validation as the band’s pursuit of new sonic horizons took a further step into the dizzying darkness, as the closing track, Ascent/Descent, dropped suddenly away halfway through, collapsing into a vertigo-inducing free-fall that ended abruptly with a echoing thud – or was it an explosion, muffled by distance? Either way, it was a hugely dramatic way to end the EP and not at all what I had anticipated. Jaw agape, I realised that this was one of the things I especially valued about All About Eve, and indeed most of the bands that I’ve become a particular fan of over the years: a willingness to avoid the road most travelled, to try something new and unanticipated.
I played the Phased EP over and over – I don’t think much else got a look in during the brief period between its release and the release of Ultraviolet. I remember tearing down to Complete Discery the Monday of its release, having come home early from college specifically to make to the trip, and practically prying a copy of Ultraviolet out of the cardboard box in which it had arrived at the shop and showering the guy working the till with the contents of my wallet in my eagerness to pay for it. I rushed home with it, and then made myself wait until after dinner before sitting down with it, in the darkness of my bedroom, with my eyes closed, and hitting play. Phased was first up, and I was so familiar with it that had a few minutes to settle into the vibe of the album. Whether it was my constant playing of the Phased EP, or my previously explained eureka moment, that did the trick I’m not sure, but I had shaken off my expectations by this point and was ready for a wild ride. And man, did Ultraviolet deliver. In spades. Underneath the new musical skin that the band had forged for themselves, the writing was as sharp as ever, the performances superlative as usual.
The album has a dark, fatalistic beauty all of its own. Julianne has remarked that in retrospect she wishes her vocals hadn’t been mixed so low, but I think the ethereal nature of the vocals is all part of the charm. What is not up for debate, though, is just how key to the whole endeavour Marty’s guitar playing was. He’s one of my favourite guitarists of all time, a true original. It was his work in The Church that elevated him to that position in my personal pantheon of favourites, and his time with All About Eve merely cemented it (along with his solo albums, all of which I’ve enjoyed). Today, if you asked me to recommend an album that really showed off his playing, I would recommend Ultraviolet above all the other albums he’s appeared on, including all those Church albums. His playing on this album is the stuff of legend – despite the fact that most of the time he’s not playing solos, concentrating instead on building up soundscapes and playing melodic lines. His use of feedback and his keen ear for the use of a variety of effects sculpt a sonic universe which I’ve never really heard an equal to. Ultraviolet feels like it was beamed in from space. It wasn’t just an evolution, it was a complete re-invention; a bold stride into the unknown that effectively killed the band’s commercial success but in the process became a dearly beloved record for me and many others (I’m not alone in singing its praises, as this great piece from Make Your Own Taste demonstrates). Even if it had been the only album the band had made, they’d still be huge personal favourites of mine. The fact that they made it after making their previous three albums is even more impressive.
It occurs to me that this piece is more a love letter to an album and to a band than to a specific song. But there are two songs, more than any others, that exemplify what I find so totally compelling about this record. One of them is Infrared; it was the instrumental mix present on the Phased EP that really sold me on the sound of the album, but the vocals just add another layer of emotion to the whole. Here’s a video (containing the spine-chilling lyrics for those that find the vocals too difficult to decipher!):
And then there’s Outshine The Sun. It’s a fabulous song, possessed of a gimlet-eyed fatalism that tears my heart out to this day, but it ends with one of the greatest guitar solos I’ve ever heard, Marty taking it to the next level with the soloing equivalent of primal scream therapy. Dissonant lines give way to a solo that Marty barely seems in control of that finally fizzes over and destroys the song and itself along with it. It truly is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. You can imagine what it was like live.
Ultraviolet is currently out of print. It makes me crazy.