Music Reviews
Sea When Absent

A Sunny Day in Glasgow Sea When Absent

(Lefse) Rating - 8/10

The fact that the six members of A Sunny Day in Glasgow rarely interacted in person while making their new album, Sea When Absent, and that their members are spread over two continents shouldn’t be as interesting a piece of trivia as it sounds. Despite the exponentially growing interconnectedness of the world and how little time people actually spend physically with one another thanks to smart phones, we still cling to this image of band members all being longtime childhood friends and jamming together in their drummer’s garage. Even though we live in an age where band members can be spread across two American cities and Sydney, Australia – places literally on opposite ends of the Earth – and communicate effectively, the very idea of this distance between creative forces goes against our entire notion of bands as a connected, cohesive unit. How does a band come together with a unified statement when its members are never all on the same continent?

As it turns out, this distance might just be what makes their music so intriguing in the first place. It can be easy to pigeonhole A Sunny Day in Glasgow in some familiar terms – shoegaze, dream pop, ambient pop – but through four albums and three EPs, the six-piece has never sounded remotely familiar, even by shoegaze standards. And even though Sea When Absent is more tightly structured and user friendly compared to previous releases – like the amorphous chamber-gaze of 2009’s Ashes Grammar – the group’s latest comes together like pastoral winds from distant ends of the earth clashing and converging, causing chaotic storms and moments of aural bliss in the process. The result is a varied, constantly morphing, yet structurally sound shoegaze psych-pop experience that’s often beautiful, sometimes nasty, and always interesting.

All of this might sound like a tough sell to believe on paper for many disillusioned naysayers who believe shoegaze ran its course twenty years ago, especially if you’re not familiar with A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s earlier work. But it doesn’t require a crash course in the band’s discography to learn they’re serious in challenging the genre’s conventions – in fact, the first few moments of Sea When Absent will effectively show you that. Blaring with crashing cymbals, seasick synths, and churning distortion, Byebye, Big Ocean (The End)’s first few seconds are the dream pop equivalent of biting straight through a blow pop instead of licking it patiently – it’s a rush of sweetness so blunt and immediate it’s almost assaulting, with bits of sharp candy gnashing in with the soft bubblegum center and creating an oddly textured blend of the two. As the track unspools, the cooing vocals and sparkling synth lines bring the track to a relatively soft – though still exhilarating – finish, it’s the immediate, jarring blast in the beginning that really sets the stage for what A Sunny Day have in store for us.

There are a few consistent elements present through Sea When Absent, namely the lush, shegaze-meets-R&B-meets-Natalie Merchant of Annie Fredrickson and Jen Goma, which often swirl and layer on top of one another to psychedelic proportions – but what really makes this album a special contender amidst a sea of dream-pop traditionalists is its ability to constantly surprise and shift gears at a moment’s notice. The beginning of Byebye, Big Ocean is just one fine example of this: there are also the cathartic surges of noise in Boys Turn into Girls (Initiation Rites), the static charges that penetrate and fragment the elated vocals of In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passes), and the prickly, gut-wrenching guitar which interrupts the otherwise buoyant Crushin, creating a souring effect and turning it’s rosy pink hue into a moldy green for a moment’s notice. This ability to transform exists outside of just moments, though, as full tracks do plenty to shift in style and atmosphere, from the dark, string-streaked moodiness of The Things They Do to Me to the sugar-fed power pop of The Body, It Bends, to make each track feel unique from one another.

So I guess all of this could prove the argument made earlier about distance interrupting band unity, as Sea When Absent, though bound together by certain stylistic motifs and a consistent ethereal dreaminess, goes in many twisted directions that can hint at a lack of unified direction. But what we really get as an end product actually seems to have been benefited by the spread out nature of the band, as Sea When Absent is a luscious smorgasbord of fleshed out ideas and surprises that all try to innovate the conventions of shoegaze, and such unbound diversity could only come from people in different environments coming together and refusing to hold anything back. Common sense would say that putting a sea between band members would make things fall apart, but A Sunny Day in Glasgow have shown that no sea is big enough to slow unabashed creativity – in fact, the sea seems less absent and quite fruitful in their case.