The Virgin Passages - Mandalay

Dan Round 11/09/2006

Rating: 4/5

Mandalay is not the Virgin Passages debut album. That isn't due till next year. Mandalay is infact a pre-debut compilation of odds-and-ends and bits-and-bobs - basic 4 track recordings, live takes, recordings previously released on E.P.s and demos. Despite the scrappiness of it all then, it is still hard to imagine with all the band's visionary and well-formed sound that it is not their debut. Mandalay begins with the industrial plodding of Hate Hate Hate, a song backed with pan pipes, sliding strings and a spookily atmospheric background. It is nearly two minutes in before the boy/girl vocals kick in with the eerie “what's this? I just don't get it”. It's simple but affecting, conjuring up terrifying images of bleak landscapes, similar in the way Kid A was so full of imagery. Throughout the album, the combination of James Nicholls and Sarah Naylor's dreamy vocals keeps it going in interesting fashion without really dominating over the instrumentation. Mandalay is indeed largely instrumental with vocals only usually added later the songs if necessary. It is by no coincidence then that the lyrics are not always applicable to pioneer the imagery on this collection of songs; the music does it alone. A good example of this is the title track with vocals introduced well past the three minute mark. The slow burning music and swirling instruments carry it along more than pleasantly until then.

For all their instrumental atmospherics and haunting visions of hope and despair, it would several tracks in, be acceptable to group them as a sort-of folky Sigur Ros. However, by Your Home Is Where You're Happy, it is clear that Virgin Passages' simplicity and knack for obvious melody is just as vital a part of them as their weird instrumentation and eerie fragments of music. A live take recorded by a 4 track recorder, it is both wonderfully basic and unorganised. Certainly, at times it feel like the band's improvising techniques and lack of planning is their greatest asset; on the following Part Weatherman, the averagely recorded clutter of multi-instruments feels as if a stack of amps is crashing down on you in a wall of sound. At times, it's as if the band were made for the late 60's - the folksy Headstone Progress and the ambient/psychedelic FOA are beamed freshly from 60s hippies, and despite the at times poorly recorded live takes, the entire album remains calming (even if feasibly chaotic) and hallucinogenic.

Mandalay is a constant LSD trip, albeit a dark, haunting one - the plainchant-like vocals, bassy music and strange overtones make for an at times down-beat and saddening listen. This is typified by FOA. There are light-shafts of happy hippie-dom too though - The Concrete Tracks, I Call Them Mine with its charming harmonics and xylophones team up with the album's most Sigur Ros like vocal performance with dreamy, chamber music qualities providing the setting. At other times, the band sound like a combination of the spacey, experimental Spiritualised and the early, Syd Barrett led, psychedelic Pink Floyd, overdosed on traditional folk and weird instruments. As the album winds on the tracks become rapidly shorter (some, including closer I Want You to Sleep are under two minutes), almost as if to tease the listener with a snippet or preview of the up-and-coming debut.

For all their complexity in instrumentation it is the minimalist simplicity that gives them their cutting-edge, so I dearly hope that when recording for their proper debut the band don't lose their improvisational skills in replacement for studio knob-twiddling trickery. Its Virgin Passages sublimely haunting folk simple-to-complex dynamic that makes them so great, and they should have no reason to loose that. Like Dogs (the penultimate track) sums up Virgin Passages wild-life ambience and as the album closes it becomes realisable that they are a truly special, local talent to be cherished. Roll on the debut!