Nick Bollinger discusses the orchestral variations of alt-rock supergroup Minor Victories.
Perhaps the most honest piece of hype I’ve ever heard – in fact, it was so candid you couldn’t really call it hype - came from Stuart Braithwaite, founder of Scottish post-rockers Mogwai. Interviewed about his latest side-project, a quartet with Slowdive singer Rachel Goswell, Editors guitarist Justin Lockey and his brother James, he said: “To be honest, I think if you know the music that all of us have made, it won't really surprise you.” And he was right.
Minor Victories, the self-titled debut of what has been dubbed by their label an ‘alt-rock supergroup’ (and that is hype) came out around the middle of last year, and as Braithwaite predicted, conformed pretty closely to expectations. Lots of languid tempos, circling motifs, electronic and analogue sounds, combined with Goswell’s sighing and sweeping vocals. Which is not a bad thing. The signature contributions of the four members meld into a resounding and rather satisfying pop noise.
The album was also dotted with guest cameos: American contrarian Mark Kozalek from Sun Kil Moon, with a typically word-weary piece of autobiography, and James Graham from Scottish rockers The Twilight Sad, who threaded his voice with Goswell’s for one of the record’s most anthemic moments.
Yet as Braithwaite as good as admitted, the Minor Victories album is also somewhat predictable. And perhaps that predictability is a consequence of the way it was made, with the four members seldom in the same room, but rather exchanging files, mixes and ideas via broadband. The danger of this ‘music by file-share’ approach is surely that it eliminates opportunities for those happy accidents that occur when musicians are playing together in the same space and time.
But the other thing about this virtual reality method of music-making is that there are potentially any number of versions of a record that could be made from those raw files. And that is borne out by the new release from Minor Victories. Titled Orchestral Variations, it is not a new album as such – although in one sense it truly is.
Take the tune ‘Scattered Ashes’, for example. It’s the actually the same tune, with the same title, that appeared on the earlier album, but here it is stripped of its explosive percussion and howling guitars, its big rock melody reduced to just a solitary piano outline. To all intents and purposes, it’s an entirely new piece of music. And the same goes for every one of the ten tracks on Orchestral Variations, though each has its analogue on the earlier album.
A striking aspect of the earlier album was the string arrangements, which often provided a lovely countermelody to the part Rachel Goswell was singing. On the new album those string parts have become the dominant feature, effectively supplanting Goswell’s vocals altogether.
These are mostly the work of Justin Lockley, and if Orchestral Variations is anyone’s album it’s his. It also seems to complement his brother James’s work in film. Though it might sound trite, this album is truly cinematic - at least it’s not hard to imagine it as the soundtrack to whatever nature documentary is playing in your mind. Yet it is equally effective without pictures at all; a kind of atmosphere-tinting ambient soundscape, of the kind Brian Eno would be proud.
You couldn’t really call Orchestral Variations a remix album; it’s something more dramatic than that. It is an entirely different conception of that initial record; an alternative proposal of the kind of band Minor Victories could be. And thinking about these two albums makes me wonder how many more variations Minor Victories could squeeze out of just these ten songs. Perhaps they need not write any more songs ever! They could simply release endless alternative versions of this apparently pliable raw material.
But really what I think they have done with these first two releases is to mark out for themselves an impressively wide territory; one that stretches from maximalist rock to minimalist ambience. That should give them plenty of room to play.
Songs featured: Give Up The Ghost, Breaking My Light, Scattered Ashes, Scattered Ashes, Give Up The Ghost, Cogs, Breaking My Light, For You Always.
Minor Victories & Orchestral Variations are available on PIAS/Fat Possum.