Saturday, 12 November 2011

Album Review: Snow Patrol - Fallen Empires

It's amazing how long it's been since Snow Patrol released A Hundred Million Suns - over three years ago - a few months ago I would have been longing desperately to hear a new song from them, and now that their sixth (sixth?!) effort, Fallen Empires, is here, it feels like no time at all. And in this, they have delivered their greatest album yet, in my opinion.

The album starts off with a couple of songs where the electronics take the place of the standard Snow Patrol guitars / piano. I'll Never Let Go starts off with a dark, electronic pulse as Gary Lightbody's vocals sound like they're desperately trying to break free of the distortion placed over them. There's also some grunge-y guitar that turns up in the verses and a standard, epic "Whooaaa!" after the chorus. The only problem is that it sounds like it could really go somewhere, but doesn't quite explode the way I wanted it to, except for the massive drums that turn up for (literally) the last two seconds. Oh well, it's still a great opener. Called Out In The Dark, the first single, is in fact, one of the few weaker links on the album. Based more on a groove this time round, with the occasional electronic beeping here and there, it still works well, but again, the chorus feels slightly less than what it could have been. But for all the criticising, after a few listens, all is forgiven, as the opening songs really come into their own.

We also have a couple of big epics where the established sound on this album is left alone for a bit. The title track, Fallen Empires, is an intense masterpiece. Countless drums build up and up as a mandolin plays the same notes rapidly throughout the entire song, and Lightbody's vocals assert themselves over the top of all this fantastic noise. There's no chorus, just seven verses and a huge outro, as a choir of voices sing "We are the light, we are the light", taking the song to its huge conclusion, leaving you speechless. The other epic is the six-minute The Symphony, which sounds like a bit more of a bouncy pop song at first, but after a couple of minutes it gives way to an instrumental where we enter the build-up phase, as instruments are layered slowly on top of each other before the massive ending where Lightbody sings "If this is all you ever ask for, then this is all you'll get" until the song ends with a rough guitar sound ending the song relatively abruptly.

There's also some more rockier guitar-based songs for those that aren't as keen on the electronics. The Weight Of Love starts with a guitar being strummed seemingly slightly out of time (but it works nicely) until the vocals turn up, filled with power. Soon after, the drum kicks in, and then the bridge where Lightbody's voice is at its highest, and we're away. Another verse and then we get the massive chorus where vocals are layered to great effect. It all sounds very polished, and is all the better for it. The same can be said for In The End, which on first listen sounds a like a little bit of filler, but given time, it works just as well as the rest; the chorus is another sing-along and the guitars really work well on it. It may not be anywhere near the best song on the album as there is something slightly lacking, but it is still good. Speaking of the best song, we have This Isn't Everything You Are, the well-deserving second single. This one may appeal to more old-school Snow Patrol fans, as it is more of a ballad akin to Run or Chasing Cars. It really hits its stride in the huge, huge chorus where the title is repeated and really makes you feel the power of it. It's such a shame it probably will never reach the lofty heights of popularity that Run or Chasing Cars did, because it deserves a place right next to them.

There are also some quiter guitar-based pieces, such as Those Distant Bells and Life-ning. The former is a nice stopgap between the straight-up rock of In The End and the epic poppy-ness of The Symphony - it's a sort of "calm before the storm" type of song. Strings and piano accompany the guitar melody underlining the whole song, along with a sort of metronomic drum beat that sounds a bit like an electronic clapping sound in places. A female vocal joins in at some point, as on some of the other tracks on the album, but here, it doesn't quite work. But it's not enough to ruin the song. Life-ning, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant. It is both simple and fragile, as Lightbody lists off all he "ever wanted from life" - for all of the sadness implied in the sound of the guitar and piano, the song is just a fantastic slice of pure happiness. It's a song that just makes you want to smile. It may be simple, but it is incredibly effective in its straightforwardness.

Elsewhere, there are some more piano-led tunes. The Garden Rules and New York both seem to start with the same three notes, both on piano. But they soon both go their separate ways. The Garden Rules is a nostalgic song as we hear a story of unrequited childhood romance. It's a very beautiful song, and as with the most of this album, everything going on in the background of the song is what makes it so. The female vocal turns up, but works nicely this time round. Also here to lead the song out is a choir, singing the chorus "oh, you will never know how much I love you..." Another song to make you smile. New York is a bit darker, as Lightbody's vocals kind of float over the piano, before the drums kick in for the bridge, followed by a big chorus. This has single potential, even if it probably won't make a dent on the charts. But when the music is this beautiful, that doesn't really matter at all. The other piano-led tune is the sort-of closer The President (there is another track afterwards, but this one feels like a better way to finish) which sounds more like classic Snow Patrol and it's just basically piano and vocals. And some kind of pipe which makes the occasional pip here and there. It is a great eome-down from The Symphony, and would be a far better way to finish than the way they actually do.

The way the album closes is with Broken Bottles Form A Star (Prelude) which just takes a massive sidestep away from what you expect. The previous three songs work brilliantly in bringing this album to its end, and this one just seems to ruin it a bit for me. It's supposed to show you how the next album will begin, and honestly, I cannot wait to hear that, but this prelude is slightly unnecessary, even if it does sound quite interesting. But it is the only song on here that I really can complain about. There is also another lyric-less song in Berlin, the only remaining song to talk about. It is another great piece of happiness, though at times I have to question its placing on the album; while it is great, it again feels very slightly unnecessary. Maybe if it had been developed into more of a full song, it would have felt a bit more deserving of the place it finds itself on the album. It sounds more like intro music for live shows to be honest. But, for all that, it is still a great couple of minutes of pure, happy music.

So, so close to awarding the full five stars to this. But due to the inclusion of Broken Bottles Form A Star (Prelude) which ruins the whole ending to the album, I can't say I would happily listen to every song. It has annoyed me to the point that I have had to edit the ending of The President to fade out before Broken Bottles... comes in. You may call that petty, but I just don't like it. But ignoring that, the other 13 tracks are absolutely brilliant; it's very hard to say which ones of them would be my least favourites. So if they'd released this album in the form I've changed it to in my iTunes, it would be an instant 5-star album. The electronics are never overdone and never detract from the sheer beauty and happiness that so much of this album contains. Even at almost an hour, the album never drags on, it's just big song after big song. The best thing they've ever done.

FAVOURITE TRACKS: This Isn't Everything You Are, Fallen Empires, New York
LEAST FAVOURITE TRACKS: In The End, Broken Bottles Form A Star (Prelude)

PREVIOUS ALBUMS (as I would rate them now): Songs For Polarbears (2/5), When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up (2.5/5), Final Straw (4/5), Eyes Open (4.5/5), A Hundred Million Suns (4/5)

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