Tall Ships come to a crossroads with Impressions

ImpressionsFor the great pessimist Schopenhauer, the will to life was an aberration, a balled fist from humanity’s lowest reach that existed to be overcome. Society was a futile project, he argued, because our baser instincts would always win. “Will to Life”, the second track from Tall Ships’ long-awaited second album Impressions, does not endorse this view, though frontman Ric Phethean does namecheck the German philosopher in the press release. “It’s about battling the darkness and sadness we feel throughout our lives through companionship,” he explains, and the extent to which you consider this statement profound insight or bland pontification will likely inform your enjoyment of the record.

The Brighton-via-Falmouth outfit are certainly no strangers to anticipation. Their 2012 debut followed nearly three years of well-received EPs and live shows, by which time both the BBC and NME were gaining interest. Everything Touching was a collection of weather-beaten monoliths, awash with epic guitar parts that ran the gamut from post-rock to math, all set to Phethean’s breathy ruminations on geology and mortality. It was occasionally exhilarating, and upon hearing that record's version of “Books” (re-tooled as a British answer to “Wake Up”), it was hard not get swept up in the bluster. Nonetheless, it lacked consistency as a long player, and failed to make significant waves critically. What made it more frustrating was that they were clearly capable of being a decent post-rock band, yet often seemed more focused on being Biffy Clyro instead.

Four and a half years later, Tall Ships have spent the interim, in Phethean’s words, “emotionally, physically and financially spent." As such, Impressions is imbued with an added measure of world-weariness, though it hasn't dampened spirits entirely. The band clearly still know their way around a big chorus, with both “Will to Life” and “Meditations on Loss” providing reminders of how impressive they can make themselves at full wingspan. Lyrically, "Road Not Taken" forms a natural sequel to the existential bruise of “Books”, imploring that life cannot be “haunted by decisions already made," nor “stunted by decisions you’ve yet to make." It also plays to the band’s musical strengths; James Elliot Field’s ambient keys gift the opening bars a lightness of touch, which allows the ensuing squall of guitar and drums greater efficacy when it finally crashes in.

Unfortunately, it’s a rare moment of balance on the album, which is otherwise lost in both sonic overload and Phethean’s predilection for pub philosophy. There are snatches of real quality throughout, though they are few and far between: “Home” evolves into a thrilling outro, for example, but it’s hard to call it climactic when the rest of the track is pushed out at a similar pace, offering no shade to drummer Jamie Bush's blinding light. Towards the end of the record, there is a gesture towards recompense in the forms of the brooding “Sea of Blood” and “Day By Day”. The latter attempts to summarise Impressions’ themes, and ends up sounding like a conversation you’ve probably had with your dad after seven pints: “Can’t forget we’ll die one day… Live out the rest of our lives day by day, on this rock of ours… ‘cause we’ve only got one life, there’s no room for regrets…” And so on. (This is a direct quote from the song, by the way, not an impression of your dad. Regrettably, the distinction must be made.)

If you’ve not read the “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, you’ll probably be familiar with the phrase “the road less traveled,” which it popularised. But the poem begins thus: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood…” Like the narrator, Tall Ships wish to take both paths at once on Impressions – measured and furious, academic and layman, Explosions in the Sky and Adebisi Shank. It should come as no surprise that they find themselves lost in the undergrowth.

Release: 31st March 2017, FatCat Records

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