Pale Saints made less of an impact in the ‘90s than My Bloody Valentine. But the variety and freshness of their debut album, The Comforts of Madness, makes it a shoegazing classic that I prefer to Loveless. Pale Saints formed in Leeds in 1987, and soon left behind jangle-pop roots for darker, atmospheric sounds. They developed this noisier approach on the marvelously named EP, Barging Into the Presence of God. Signed to 4AD Records, they found the perfect label where they could explore and experiment.

“Way the World Is” churns and rattles, Graeme Naysmith’s restless guitar propelling this as the first of the album’s faster, ornery songs. Each track is framed by noise, as if even the quieter songs cannot free themselves from the clatter. Some find this draws attention to the difference between the songs produced by John Fryer and those by Gil Norton, but the sequencing works well, the piston drive of “You Tear the World in Two” harnessing a softer vocal from bassist Ian Masters, over the driving guitar and Chris Cooper’s drums.

The songs race along early on, in and out of the industrial moods and tape sounds. “Sea of Sounds” might have inspired Ride, with a melancholy voice floating over a stately wash of sonic textures. Masters’ gentle delivery plays off the brooding arrangement and highlights its somber mood. Speeding up, “True Coming Dream” leaps out of its quiet beginnings, rushing across another combustive combination as bass, guitar and drums click into a volatile churning machine.

I have never heard any group with a similar propulsion. Oddly, “Little Hammer” does not pound, but gently brushes the percussion. Foreshadowing the pop direction the band would take on its next albums, it’s like a halftime rest before “Insubstantial,” which erupts out of a soft start into what the band does best: the soft-loud dynamics that the Pixies and Nirvana popularized for alternative rock. While those bands featured singer-songwriters who were charismatic personalities that cultivated an audience, Masters and crew let their songs do the talking.

The squalls which begin and end tracks highlight what makes each song different, and connects them through Naysmith’s feedback, effects and distortion. These segues upset the art-rock ambiance and keep the tone from becoming too twee or too amplified. This foundation helps statelier songs like “A Deep Sleep for Steven” progress with dignity before the perfectly pitched “Language of Flowers,” which hints at the band’s affection for Echo and the Bunnymen.

Pale Saint smartly covers the subject of a previous Revisit. Their version of Los Angeles outfit Opal’s “Fell from the Sun” boosts the volume and the pace, while keeping the ambling arrangement of the original underneath the loudness.

Opal’s successor Mazzy Star had a minor hit with Peter Blegvad’s “Blue Flower,” and the Saints soon covered it in turn. Pale Saints combined the hazy folk ambiance of Opal and Velvet Underground-inspired bands of the early ‘90s, with a harsher, more experimental tinge that stood out from the likes of 4AD peers such as Lush. Meriel Barham, who was Lush’s original vocalist, is credited as backup musician and singer on the Pale Saints’ debut, but the role of singer-songwriter-vocalist remains in Masters’ control, which boosted its impact and bolstered its range.

The elegant, mid-tempo “Sight of You” is a fan favorite that allows Masters’ choirboy vocal to linger in a cathedral-like setting of airy, soaring instruments. It segues neatly into a last fling with the mechanical drumming that Cooper offers, under Master’s steady bass and Naysmith’s flailing guitar riffs, jerking into slashing chords. “Time Thief” ends with a high-pitched gnarl that would get howls out of Andrew, the Airedale Terrier I had at the time.

The Comforts of Madness made it to number 40 on the British charts in 1990. Barham joined the band full time, and with Gil Norton’s more accessible production, subsequently dominated their sound; and the band lost their edge. Even if In Ribbons (1992) features some of their best songs, their pop turn led to Masters’ departure, and the group stalled after the forgettable Slow Buildings (1994). They eventually collapsed back to the duo of Naysmith and Cooper, who worked together on various projects, while Barham produces electronic music under the name Kuchen.

Pale Saints’ quirky legacy rests in their debut. As with many bands that joined a love of trippier music with post-punk, they did not last long. But The Comforts of Madness is the work of an uncommercial band that could make forty minutes zoom by and reward repeated plays. My dog and I never got tired of it.

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