'Heart of the Matter' by King of the AlpsReview
It brings me enormous pleasure to review for you the new (and second) King of the Alps album, 'Heart of the Matter' which came out earlier today. Not that their music is necessarily easy to describe: just as their often subtly strange songs shift restlessly in form & structure and just as lineups change from release to release, so the meanings of the words are frequently as difficult to lay hold of as grasping quicksilver in your hands.
Chief writer Paul Ingram leads us on journeys of his own emotional discovery & search for meaning in the complexities of the world on a broad level & human relationships on a much more intimate one & if that means his lyrics follow non-linear paths at times, they surely reflect how our own processes of thought & loving twist & turn erratically better than the simplistic "I Will Always Love You" school of writing.
This time out the album (which mirrors the name of their 2018 debut ‘Matters of the Heart') features another new band member (though one whom I introduced you to in a live review context last November), Sally Laws, sharing her vocals with the core duo of Simon Ward (bass) and Paul (vocals, every other instrument & production). Other previous songs have benefitted from female vocals intertwining with Paul's, but since they have been guests of the calibre of Izzie Derry and Ellie Gowers who could not perform live regularly with the band, at last the songs can feature this aspect on a firmer basis. not only does her beautiful and powerful voice blend in well with the other musical elements, but she fits in well with the philosophy of the band and understands what Paul is saying in the songs.
I've actually told you about two of the eleven songs before as both "Wonderful Day" and "Time Goes So Slow" have appeared as singles, so in the interests of not repeating myself, please do refer back to my previous reviews for that pair.
Otherwise, it's business as usual for King of the Alps. The pace of releases is determined to a large degree by a streak of perfectionism which does them much credit but leaves their fans hanging on. I suppose the end result of such expectation results in all the more joy when a whole album actually drops after at least fifteen months of being aware it was in progress. Each track is lovingly worked over in the finest detail, then recorded so it sounds a natural rather than contrived performance & finally Paul spends a great deal of time getting the mixes just right to tell the story he had originally conceived. Thankfully I'd heard (not least in their recent set at the Godiva Festival), many of the songs live over the past months, albeit in very stripped down arrangements compared with the album.
"Sinuous" is a useful word to use about King of the Alps songs as it's a pretty close description of the jazz inflected basslines which tie the often complex structures & angular melodies together. Simon often sounds like he is off on his own musical adventure back there but it's all clever & tasteful stuff & the long, sinuous lines not only are worth attention in their own right but provide harmonic structures for the other elements which a plodding and repetitive backbeat would only drag down.
Similarly doing impression of vines are Paul & Sally's voices which intertlink & dance around each other in a myriad of combinations: lead/backing dynamics, harmonising or via "the ancient art of weaving" (© K Richards albeit talking about guitars). It's been a while but now the band has Sally, Paul seems to greatly enjoying the possibilities at their disposal.
"Ethereal" therefore is another handy phrase: the songs have a strange & other worldly beauty, which is ironic given Paul's focus on the details of reality. The melodies are as I've said angular at times & unexpected as they develop, but not necessarily abstruse or avant garde: just unusual & often haunting.
Pathos is there in spades, but not the tear jerking, heavy handed variety so evident in all the current Adele-likes which reeks of insincerity & resolves to nausea on the part of the listener, but rather one which resolves to the humane & empathetic: especially since however gloomy Paul gets at what he sees around him, he is inclined to swing back to optimism eventually (the album cover, while picturing a flooded road at least has a brighter sky than the brooding menace of ‘Matters of the Heart').
And so from the general truths to the specific pleasures…..
Album opener "City" is a short wordless sound picture which leads us from the sounds of the urban environment (which I imagine is a central aspect of the album) to somewhere much more peaceful & that in turn morphs into the earlier single "Wonderful Day". This in turn gives way to "All Be Strong", an exhortation set to a far eastern accompaniment with insistent drumming which alas is unlikely to make the transition to the live set. Like its successor "Time To Make A Change", there is a feeling of the "far away" in the production as if the band are sitting on a cloud somewhere, viewing humanity's foolishness with a compassionate air & trying to offer advice on how to makes changes for the better (good to hear "education" cited in there).
"Forever" seems to come a bit closer to earth but offers further philosophical solace: this time along the lines of "que sera, sera" and taking the long view, the languor of the tune (albeit with more of the elements they can't reproduce live) adding emphasis.
After "Time Goes So Slow" we hear "Me and You" which brings us closer to the relationship songs of ‘Matters of the Heart' than the previous contemplations, yet sung in curious hushed & intimate tones against a skiffle beat, as if the singers were whispering in each other's ears rather than singing to us, the audience.
"Everything to Me" takes us initially at least to one of King of the Alps' queasier tunes and for the first time really on the album makes us feel more uneasy than reassured: evoking as they do so well, the thrill & unsettling motion of the helter skelter or roundabout before resolving suddenly to an uplifting Burt Bacharach style section of commitment to a lover.
"The Darkness of Greed" is (I suppose) a rumination on one of the uglinesses of life yet delivered in such an understated & (again) hushed tone that once again the overwhelming impression is one of a celestial observer expressing "more sadness than anger".
You might well consider that "Goodbye" is a fine title for a final track on an album, but King of the Alps don't embrace the obvious. Once again Paul is considering the passage of the years and positively crooning about them: which again acts rather against the grain considering he's not contemplating eternal love but rather an ending.. I like songs where the sound subverts the words.
The actual closer is called "Off Grid" and appropriately is the most unusual sounding of the set, swerving & ducking this way & that as first Sally and then Paul challenge us to forsake the conventional mundanity of our lives for something less structured, predictable & bland.
I've often been tempted to suggest that King of the Alps create music for the connoisseur listener: which implies an elitist & snobbish approach they'd be horrified to have applied to them. Nevertheless, they create songs of complexity & detail in sound which are at odds with the fodder of mainstream media & to even begin to grasp what Paul is writing about you both need a certain amount of life experience and an ability to not settle for the comfortable nostrums of mainstream music. He asks many questions & tries to answer them but if he doesn't fully then that's because the great existential questions of humanity have similarly been argued over for millennia without satisfactory resolution.
You can simply play ‘Heart of the Matter' and bliss out to its undeniable beauty or you can tune into the words as well & if you are a trifled unsettled by what you hear, then surely making you think is part of the most effective processes which ultimately create emotional connection?
The wait's been quite a long one, but now you can tell why it was: this is such a well intentioned and crafted album that a rushed job would have not done it justice. It's wrought with much love for humanity but not without the odd moment of exasperation.