We’re now into December, jaded perhaps from the year that’s almost come and gone, and stuffed full from all the marvellous (and not so marvellous) music we’ve had the pleasure of hearing in 2011. The question is: can we take any more? Well, Norway’s Sacred Harp is here to challenge us with their debut album Window’s a Fall, via Brainlove Records. And far from being some end of year filler, it’s a rollercoaster ride of experimental music like the Scandinavians do best, to-ing and fro-ing from one style to the next, a restless album that begs to be released from pop structures. Yep, I’ve definitely got room for just a little bit more.
Led by Dutchwoman Jessica Sligter, Sacred Harp appear to have their roots in jazz and improv, and the closest comparison I can make is that listening to Window’s a Fall is like listening to a female-fronted Bear in Heaven, who’ve spent just a little too much time watching Twin Peaks. Which, should you need to ask, is very much a good thing. At first it’s hard to get a handle on what Sacred Harp are up to, as one moment they’re outrocking like the best experimental acts, the next it’s angular synth-pop like Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This is best shown by the Jekyll and Hyde opening salvo of ‘Found in the Open (the Underlying Deep Structure)’, ‘Florida Lights’ and ‘Red/Three’. The first of the three is an unsettling slice of Gothic Americana, with Sligter’s off-key vocals to the fore. It threatens to build to a crescendo, but never quite does, remaining tightly wound throughout. ‘Florida Lights’ is initially similar in tone, but the focus moves from Americana to spooky electronica, the song’s tempo groggily swinging before metallic guitars and horns enter and tread all over any discernible structure. It’s a heady brew, and just when you’re thinking “okay, I know what this band are all about”, the latter of the three tracks comes along and makes you think again. Sligter’s yelping vocals make ‘Red/Three’ delicious pop fun, as she switches from singing to cheeky spoken word interludes reminiscent of Debbie Harry.
The hazy ballad ‘Julie’ again tricks the listener; its 4AD beauty icily gleams from start to finish, Sligter deciding to part with the gymnastics to concentrate on a gorgeous 4-minute sigh of a vocal. And then we have the two finest moments together: ‘Melato’ and ‘Birds of Winter’. The former, an up-and-down thrill ride, has spidery guitar lines mixing with burbling electronics before a stomping, howling solo takes things into overdrive. ‘Birds of Winter’ is, simply put, one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Beginning as a slo-mo shoegaze, Sligter sings of a “dark noise” hindering a tentative or weary relationship, the tension building before exploding in some marvellously muscular riffing and Crazy Horse-style soloing. It should really be the last moment heard on the record, but sadly the final two tracks slightly let down what Sacred Harp have already given us.
‘Horses for Sophia’ is a creepy tale, devoid of a tune and ends in a Sligter monologue that contains some of the fruitiest language to be heard this side of Azealia Banks – it’s either laugh-out-loud funny, shocking, or utterly childish, I can’t decide which. The final track ‘Thief’ redeems things with a piano-led dirge that elegantly builds to an extended noise-rock coda; a much more satisfactory ending to proceedings.
Whilst Sacred Harp does seem to be Jessica Sligter’s baby, much praise has to go to the sonic explorations of bandmates Juhani Silvola, Øystein Skar and Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød. They’ve bent and twisted the structures of pop music to ensure it can hold their experimental tendencies, and Window’s a Fall goes to show that it’s – generally speaking – a successful endeavor. We’re never likely to know what the band does from one minute to the next, but one thing is for sure – it’ll be a thrilling listen.