The members of Sian Alice Group must have named their debut album 59:59 to accentuate just how much is crammed into the hour-long record. The album is a sprawler, a mixed bag with disparate selections that all pretty much pay off, unlike the recent eclectic yet not-always-engaging album from Evangelicals. Sian Alice Group’s sound is rooted in the style of spaced-out rock that England has produced so much of over the years, from Pink Floyd to Spiritualized. That genre has always been open to elements from across the musical spectrum, so it’s no surprise to find Sian Alice Group dabbling in orchestral instrumentation, minimalism, and free jazz.
The album’s opening pair of songs lets us in on how widely things will vary throughout 59:59. After some initial clanging around, a pretty guitar arpeggio comes to dominate “As the Morning Light,” soon joined by lead singer Sian Ahearn’s angelic cooing. The title of “Way Down to Heaven” might mislead some to think things will keep going in an ethereal direction, but the song is actually more hellish than heavenly. It chugs along atop a menacing, lumbering two-chord pattern, ending with what sounds like church chimes accompanying the bombing of a British city.
59:59 is peppered with instrumental interludes, and on the whole the songs here are much more intriguing musically than lyrically. Ahearn’s high-pitched British accent can make her words hard to understand. When they are clear, they aren’t of much substance. Both “When” and the PJ Harvey-esque “Sleep” find Ahearn complaining of loneliness and lack of sleep.
The music supplied by multi-instrumentalists Ben Crook and Rupert Clervaux (a producer who has worked with Spring Heel Jack and other bands) is cinematic and gorgeous. “Contours” starts with barreling guitars that eventually get overtaken by a glowing, humming keyboard pattern reminiscent of LCD Soundsytem’s “Someone Great.” “Days of Grace III” is the type of lush, repetitive instrumental that Philip Glass or Sufjan Stevens might write.
And the band is smart to end the sixteen-track sprawler strongly. “Motionless,” with its pinging guitars and percussion, could be a left-field club hit from Portishead or the Knife. After its frantic pulse, “Larsen B” is a comedown track that sounds like something Mogwai or Low would do in a quieter moment. And the album wraps up with “Complete Affection,” a scrawling free-jazz workout that features guest musicians who have played with Spiritualized and Gang Gang Dance.