A friend of mine recently claimed that the more significant creative force in the Smiths must have been Morrissey rather than Johnny Marr, since Morrissey’s solo output has been a lot better than anything Marr has been involved in since the band’s demise. I agree that Marr’s post-Smiths musical efforts have been extremely disappointing, but I don’t think that that proves anything about his stature in the band, which was clearly crucial. More often than not it’s not one person or another, but precisely the encounter between people that creates a great and magical band; the magnificence of such a band cannot be explained by the simple sum of its parts.
Further thoughts about band members and their musical convergences came to my mind when I started thinking about the different bands and side projects that have evolved and revolved around Air Formation.
The Brighton band, consisting of Matt Bartram on vocals and guitar, Ben Pierce on bass, Richard Parks on keyboards, James Harrison on drums and Ian Sheridan on guitar, released their first record in 2000 and split in April 2011, before reforming in 2014. They make high-gloss, lush, melodious and mellifluous sounds, with undulating melodic bass lines, soaring keyboard drones and avalanches of heavily delayed and tremoloed guitars. At its best their music references such Shoegaze obscurinaries as Ride, Slowdive and Pale Saints, merging a blue-grey outlook with shiny drums and a golden melting lava of guitar chords to create affecting and graceful gems. But at its less fortunate moments it seems to partake in a genre that can perhaps be called Midcore – tuneful, innocuous mid-tempo songs, midway between Wagnerian grandeur and humdrum modesty, constantly running in pretty much the same average gear, and lacking in dynamics and dynamism. Taken in large dosages Air Formation can be samey and tiring, even a bit plodding. For music that is ostensibly about space, it offers surprisingly little breathing space.
Guitarist and singer Matt Bartram and drummer James Harrison also formed a band called You Walk Through Walls. For this project, they ditched the keyboards and stripped down to a trio, with Harry Irving on bass. This didn’t so much pare down the sound as focused its cloudiness, as it were, generally putting the “driver” back into Swervedriver. The drums are pushed further down the mix, the bass is rounder and more urgent, and the production significantly holds back on the hi-fi sheen. Which actually leaves more room for the wonderfully nuanced, varied, gritty and immersive guitar sounds. Matt Bartram’s voice – soft, warm, gently gravelly – is still very reminiscent of the voice of the late, wonderful Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens – only this time the music, though obviously different in style, also incorporates the kind of disarming charm that the Australian band was so renowned for.
Since 2012, Air Formation bassist Ben Pierce has also released several recordings under the name I Am Your Captain. These releases have a bedroom-recording feel in the best possible way: ruffled, introverted, fearlessly inventive, moving, and utterly lovely. Paying homage to putative old loves like Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh, Pastels, Cocteau Twins and MBV, Pierce creates fuzzy lo-fi experimentations with indie-pop songwriting, variable moodscapes and noisy effects.
Recently we’ve also had the first release from the side project of Air Formation drummer James Harrison, called Code Ascending. Their EP is called ‘What I Choose to Forget’, which includes for example the murmured vocals and self-effacing smudgy production of Harrison’s cohorts. Instead, Code Ascending, in which James plays bass and sings and is joined by Alex on guitar and Laurence on drums, is an in-your-face, razor-punky and extrovert outfit with some seriously interesting guitar sounds. They combine the beaten urban grandeur of Editors, the elegant metrosexual swagger of Suede, and the slightly ridiculous self-regard and bombast of the Horrors, Simple Minds and Killing Joke.