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  England in 1819  


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Iím not sure this has ever come up before, but Iím a historian by training. It's not how I make my living these days, but I still read a lot of history in my free time, so I'm the go-to person for Brendan whenever a question regarding events prior to 1990 comes up. Anyway, Brendan got an email about a new release from a band called "England in 1819". He promptly emailed me and asked, "What does it mean, Oh History Guru?"

I did a quick search of my mental rolodex. The first thing that popped into my head is that there were huge riots regarding parliamentary reform during 1819. This caused a series of measures that made it legal for the English government to search for illegal arms, made it easier to arrest people for slandering government officials, and made it illegal for more than a certain number of folks to gather without a government permit. A band citing this tumultuous time period? A band consisting of a father and two sons and other musicians who had ties to Athens GA, England, and now Baton Rouge? A band described as vaguely orchestral? O.K., this sounded like something I needed in my review stack.

In general, the music found on Alma is full of slow builds, where the song starts quietly and then grows by adding other instruments and volume so that everything comes to crescendos and then falls away. It's a style that has served many bands well (see My Latest Novel) and has much to recommend it. As an example, Blue Ribbon begins with a light guitar part that is backed by a xylophone. Over this the vocalist sings until gradually a cymbal crash comes in and the guitars become louder and more prominent. Things get louder and fuller until the song reaches what the musicians seem to think is a epiphany and then it all fades away to continue onto the succeeding verses. Similarly, Skyscraper begins with a mournful piano plink before the voice comes up and echoes above everything. Then, after a minute, the drums begin to tap and more dramatic instrumentation fills up the space once solely occupied by the piano. The voice gets louder and more echoed and everything just continued to build, until almost everything falls out about halfway through to allow the voice to take center space. Things begin to fill in again and this ebb and flow continues throughout the song.

But therein lies part of the issue with Alma and England in 1819. The tonal changes seem to rely more on sheer volume and additional instrumentation than on any natural musical progression. Therefore the ebb and flow doesn't feel entirely natural or necessary in the way in does on other bands that use the same format. Additionally, the primary vocalist doesn't seem to have the instinctual phrasing and quality which would carry the changes well. In fact, I find the vocals to be a very dissonant quality within the music, especially since the vocal melodies often seem to be working against the flow of the instrumentation. It's nothing insurmountable with time, but it does strike such a jarring note on Alma that I find it hard to completely immerse myself in the album.

Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that the best tracks on the album are the instrumental ones. For example, Little Batur begins with a clanging metallic sound that is quickly joined by an electrically plinking guitar melody. Gradually another guitar comes in to almost drown out that metallic clang. But the disparate parts join back together to quicken and grow louder and fuller. It's the same basic musical format heard on the other songs, but it works better without the vocal distraction. Similarly, Emily Jane fades in with a distorted synth that has a light airy quality about it. The tune adds other notes and instrumentation that still allows much silent. It's a vaguely spacey tune that ends too quickly in a little under 2 minutes. It's nicely done and shows how much effect the vocals have on my enjoyment of this record.

In principle, I really like what England in 1819 are trying to do. Playing with sound and tone is something that I think the world needs a bit more of in its music. However, the execution of the record leaves something to be desired, especially with regards to the prominent and dissonant vocals. Again, as I stated above, these are issues that can be resolved with more experience and more care in meshing the different components of the band. So, while I may not be entirely thrilled with Alma, I can see where the band can go from here to improve.

As one additional side note, in writing this review, I googled the band name to check a couple of facts. Ironically, the first results back for England in 1819 were for a poem of that name by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I'm going to take a wild guess and think that this was the true reference for the band name and not the historical events themselves.

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