London, St. Pancras Old Church
That the launch of London-based Alma’s eponymous debut album, from which the leading single was the grandly titled ‘To The Stars’, is in a celestial, spiritual location such as the pre-medieval St.Pancras Old Church (built circa AD 314), might suggest some U2-esque, messianic grandeur. Except this isn’t the Vatican nor the Cathedral of St. Bono In The Fields. No. This setting is grand yet intimate, a poetic paradox that fits tonight’s sound – sublime yet unassuming, like a shy angel. Much like the band themselves.
When they take to the stage/altar, they do so reverentially, almost apologetically, especially terminally diffident floor-examiner guitarist Ciaran Morahan, and the opening notes of what’s simply called ‘New Song’ (working title, I’m guessing), it’s almost hymnal, like we’re at the beginning of a sermon – perhaps even a conversion.
The sparse and melancholy opening ‘anonymous’ invokes, in perennial sermon style, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost – that being Michael Stipe, Tim Booth and Thom Yorke – all fighting over possession of singer Pete Lambrou’s soul. Nobody wins. This is a voice and stage presence that not only invokes that trinity, but brings it into alignment and creates something uniquely soulful. (“And ye, the Rock Gods created Human”, I think it goes.)
Following this, the hypnotic piano tickling of ‘The Great Escape’ is like rainfall in the soul, a cleansing that threatens to drown. The arrival of Lambrou’s febrile vocal falsetto dares you to dive in – a baptismal cleansing delivered to a reverentially silent congregation. Believe me, at a London gig, silence is rarer than a mosh pit at a legitimate mass. Unless it’s a gospel mass, obviously. And extending the religious comparisons more, if you’ll indulge me (which you will, or you’re all off to Hell), ‘While Nothing’, the closing track on their forthcoming album, is an angelic aria that swims around the hallowed walls and almost entraps us with a spiritual yet achingly human embrace, the words “See your soul, remind yourself/That every heart must be dear”, the double-meaning on the word ‘dear’ highlighting the divide between the material and spiritual world. And when it’s delivered with such eyes-closed fragile sincerity, and a voice that shames the angels, his soul emotes almost palpable presence. It’s ethereal, transcendent and seems to challenge the human condition. The venue is undoubtedly the perfect setting (hey, they should do a church tour!), but this music could sanitise a brothel.
The title track ‘To The Stars’ brings out the band’s Pink Floyd operatic proclivities – the change of tone that reminds us worship need not be tranquil, sedate and reflective. Let’s fucking celebrate, hey? (oop, forgive the profanities, O Alma). with the piano gone from tinkling to hammering, and undulating, perfectly executed strings from beautiful coupling of violinist Marie Schreer and Naomi McLean on cello (hey chaps, why are they at the back?), Alma bring another dimension to their repertoire. Suddenly, floor-watching guitar man Morahan is actually on the floor, making like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and fiddling around with his myriad banks of effects pedals, while also making like Jimmy page and bowing his guitar strings with a drumstick. The song is as haunting and disturbing as it is uplifting. A bit like church, really.
Finally, a word on Pete Lambrou’s incredible and dextrous voice. Mostly falsetto, always angelic, but with an underlying menace and passion that brings to mind Thom Yorke, but with a more direct approach to the notes, rather than taking the odd warbling chicane. Indeed, the music of Alma (which, fittingly, means ‘soul’ in Spanish), and its forthcoming release, could almost be the album Radiohead should have made twixt ‘OK Computer’ and what became the musical blancmange ‘Kid A’. While a change of direction is admirable, making such a quantum leap was, for many (myself included) too much to handle. This debut from Alma is the transitional crossover – the right of passage; the bridge of experimental waters – that would have made the perfect album to bridge the divide.
To highlight this, closing track ‘The Lighthouse’, a true album highlight (geddit?), sends the newly converted off with both a sense of closure and a feeling of enlightenment. Lambrou’s falsetto voice, while threatening to shatter the stained-glass windows, also seems to embody their divine, inviting, almost imploring wisdom and luminescent colours. A perfect closer, the music builds and builds with no specific language but that of intent and direction – a Tower of Babel that everyone understands and reaches for Heaven, but has a sparse openness that feels almost confessional. You don’t feel separate from Alma – when onstage, they are yours, and by proxy, you are theirs. It doesn’t happen enough in music these days, but it’s happening now. Halleluljah!
At last, music on a higher plain. I, for one, am converted.
*Edited versions of this review will be published in Record Collector in the UK and Filter magazine in the US
*Live photos by Drew Suppa & Magda Wrzeszcz