Britpop came and went in the blink of an eye. For a few years in the early 1990s, it seemed as though the UK would reclaim its place in rock ‘n’ roll dominance through positivity, a waggish sense of cultural identity and veneration for the first, long ago Summer of Love. Though the origins of what came to be called Britpop are vague at best (although most would posit Suede as the first to be dubbed with the term), the scene imploded quickly through a combination of creative stagnation, rampant drug use and the ever fickle hyperbole of the UK musical press. But while popular imagination thinks of bands like Oasis, Blur and the other ones as essentially coming from nowhere, Britpop was actually an aggregation and streamlining (some might say mainstreaming) of a number of disparate, competing music scenes at the time, including Madchester, baggy and, most noisily, shoegaze,
Enter A Storm in Heaven. First released in June of 1993, it was the first full length album by an up and coming band called Verve. The group would later add a prefixing “the” to their name and ride the last great wave of Britpop, vastly changing their sound in the process, but in 1993, they were simply Verve. A self-titled EP had been released that prior December and several critically applauded singles had seen them marked as a band to watch. But A Storm in Heaven shows the Verve in a strange place in their career, neither the volatile world conquerors they would become, nor a band trying to make a mark. Their debut album was and is a remarkably self-assured first effort, though that’s hardly surprising. Like their contemporaries (and tourmates) in Oasis, the Verve presented themselves to the world as superstars before they had any kind of success, self-proclaimed geniuses that expected the musical world to be handed to them. And much like that other northern quartet, their brash arrogance succeeded for a while. In the Verve’s case, it took a bit longer.
For one thing, A Storm in Heaven is not a pop album. Twenty years later, after the years in which the Verve dominated the charts through singer Richard Aschroft’s finely tuned songwriting process, it’s difficult to listen to the album and hear much beyond the faintest hints of how the band would transform itself. Shoegaze was a musical movement based on the concept of heavy waves of guitar, music that was built in layers, overdubs and pedal trickery. It wasn’t music based on melody or riffs, the two complementary poles of guitar pop music. And while A Storm in Heaven is on the accessible side of a genre dominated by the density of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and its children, it’s also not an album with many avenues for a radio single.
From the opening moments of “Star Sail,” the album is dominated by the roaring guitar work of Nick McCabe. It sounds more like an ocean of effects than a single guitarist performing, a surging sea of pedals and overdubs. The Verve came to be focused on Ashcroft as both a bandleader and a performer, his distinctive voice becoming the main focus of their music. But on A Storm in Heaven, the band works as a more organic whole, with the percussion of Peter Salisbury and Simon Jones’ bass being nearly as prominent as Ashcroft and McCabe. But tracks like “Already There” and “Beautiful Mind” are formless and gorgeous, crafted around McCabe’s distortion and Ashcroft’s druggy rambling.
The song “Blue” was the first single released from the album, but that must have only been for lack of a more pointed, hook-friendly track. If anything, closer “See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time)” is the album’s most accessible song, tracking in McCabe’s unpredictable electricity for acoustic guitars and a gentle, nearly trancelike piano. It’s the closest thing to a pop song on the album, and it’s telling that it’s the only track composed solely by Ashcroft. A Northern Soul, their next album, would see the Verve veering sharply into more traditional songwriting, with tracks like “On Your Own” and “History” finding Ashcroft as a stronger and stronger writer, his voice coming to overshadow the rest of the group. There would be legendary levels of infighting, breakups, reformations, membership lineup changes before Urban Hymns, their commercial breakthrough. By then, four years had passed, shoegaze had fallen out of favor and Britpop had just popped its bubble with the released of Be Here Now. A Storm in Heaven is an album unlike the rest of the Verve’s discography, neither attempting popularity nor approachability, yet not abrasive or confrontational. It’s 20 years old, but it’s eternally music by young men just beginning their strange career.