Breaking out after 12 years in the making
Bands today are a lot like spots. Some explode overnight only to disappear just as quickly without a trace, while others come and go like a monthly breakout but never really leave an impression. Very few can say they’ve been trying to break through the surface of the skin that is the music industry for 12 years.
Formed during 1994, lead singer Lightbody wanted to put his songwriting abilities to good use and enlisted the help of fellow Irishman Mark McClelland. Through the years, however, Snow Patrol have seen more new line-ups than the Green Bay Packers and more name changes than your dodgy local restaurant.
It was the release of third album Final Straw that saw the “eruption” of Snow Patrol and catapulted them to the success they so rightly deserved. While I’m against dissecting music as it can sometimes ruin the overall denouement of the music, you wouldn’t fully enjoy a book by skipping chapters and it’s impossible to appreciate the later work without referring to the earlier releases.
Shrug – The Yoghurt vs. Yoghurt Debate was the first demo, recorded in Dundee, Scotland in 1995. Instantly recognisable is Lightbody’s distinct voice, angst-ridden and reeking of Nirvana-like influences. The heavy guitars overpower the raw vocals and lyrics such as “All I’ve got, I give it to you / Cos all I’ve got is music and poetry” on “What I Was.”
The sound has matured dramatically on each album but the same self-deprecation is there. Lightbody writes with an honesty that is both insulting and endearing. “Slider” (from Shrug) features the lines: “Did you forget what it was you said? / Bleeding like that, you could wind up dead.” You could be forgiven for not noticing the harshness of the lyrics next to the melodic tune and soft, whispering vocals. "In Blue" features the lyrics: “I said to you my friend / This is the end / I told you once before /You are a f*cking whore,” mixing well with the chorus “I want you for myself.” Thankfully, they’ve outgrown the anger phase and we’re left with just the sheer honesty of their songwriting.
The lyrics could stand alone as contemporary verse. Most bands would be lost without the melody to complete the song but again, that’s what sets Snow Patrol apart. “Fifteen Minutes Old” from first album Songs for Polar Bears and “Black and Blue” from second album When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up validate the individual composition and range of the songwriting. They may have evolved from angst-ridden but the same themes are visible from the early demos, demonstrating their vulnerability and fear. The songs all revolve around relationships, or lack of them and possibly act as a form of therapy.
What’s refreshing and original is the mélange of songs. Long-term friend, Jonny Quinn, joined the band in the summer of 1997 and brought with him a wealth of drumming experience and unique style. Relying on the electronic wizardry of Tom Simpson, each album features a variety of loud guitars and electronic beats on various tracks. “Starfighter Pilot,” a popular requested track at live shows, is testament to the successful combination of heavy drums and electronic synthesized beats. Songs for Polar Bears features tracks like “Little Hide” and “Velocity Girl," a gorgeous fusion of fuzzy guitars and smooth vocal lilts from Gary Lightbody. On “Get Balsamic Vinegar…Quick You Fool,” we hear the bittersweet, but harsh lyrics: “I don’t wanna hurt her feelings / But she’s a crazy F*cked up bitch.”
With each album comes an unconscious growth. While The Yoghurt vs. Yoghurt Debate was heavily influenced by the likes of the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr, listening to Mogwai, Arab Strap and Lou Barlow influenced the successful third album Final Straw. Quite the transition from grunge to Scottish folk. The addition of guitarist Nathan Connolly has meant the rise in dynamic harmonies and has contributed overall to the maturity in sound. Underrated as a guitarist as well as a vocalist, his collaboration with Lightbody on songs is spine-tingling.
Supporting U2 last summer saw them embrace a new challenge of stadium dates. Not a bad place to start for new bassist, former Terra Diablo member, Paul Wilson. Not content with working with the band on a few occasions, he replaced Mark McClelland in March 2005 and was heavily involved in the making of the latest album, Eyes Open. Compare a stadium date in front of 20,000 people to an intimate gig in a dodgy pub and the same band are there, stripped down to the bare essentials but still putting on one hell of a show. They’re capable of holding their own wherever they play, a rare quality in bands today. Lightbody has an infectious energy and you never quite know who’s enjoying the gig more, the band or the thirsty crowd. They play every gig as if it’s their last and never seem to tire of it.
Second album, When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up seizes your attention from the first track and refuses to let go. Tracks like “Chased By…I Don’t Know What” and “Olive Grove Facing the Sea” express the ever-familiar vulnerability with heartwrenching lyrics while “When It’s All Over…” hints at the earlier anger, now repressed and transformed into something else, indefinable.
Snow Patrol reeks of regret and and the past tense. Each album sees the familiar territory but each time from a different perspective. There is a confidence that wasn’t there before. Instead of apologising for smacking you round the head with their brutal honesty they’re likelier to justify it.
The days of playing gigs with more people behind the bar than in the crowd are sadly over. Songs for Polar Bears and When It’s All Over… made me think Snow Patrol were a band that wouldn’t be able to fulfil a stadium gig, instead favouring intimate venues. However, the support slot on the U2 European tour changed all that. It was then we were given a glimpse of the capability and growth of the band. Snow Patrol have well and truly broken out and the new album Eyes Open will no doubt boast another level of maturity and feature more hauntingly beautiful songs.
Check them out if you don’t believe me.
- Lu Kelly