Thursday, 2 March 2017

Mostly Autumn's 'Sight of Day' - Album Review

Regular readers of this blog will by now be more than aware of my love for York's Mostly Autumn. They were the first band I saw live back in 2006, and it was that evening over 10 years ago that set me on the musical path that I still find myself walking down. I have seen the band well over 30 times live now and seeing them live is often one of the highlights of the gigging year for me. Perhaps unsurprisingly too, a new Mostly Autumn album is always a highly anticipated arrival. Since becoming an independent band in 2005, Mostly Autumn have funded their albums through pre-order campaigns and were doing this long before the current Pledge, Kickstarter etc. trend really took hold. Mostly Autumn's pre-order campaigns are much more low-key and less elaborate than what many have come to expect, but the fans always get value for money. From 2006's Heart Full of Sky onward, fans who pre-ordered the album received a limited edition of the album with a bonus disc (usually with exclusive extra songs) before the album's official release date. This trend continues on Sight of Day, the band's twelfth studio album. 2014's Dressed in Voices (which I reviewed here), the band's last studio effort, has since been hailed as many (including myself) as the band's greatest achievement to date. The dark, emotionally-charged concept album contained some of the band's most thoughtful and impacting music to date and really worked well as a singular piece of music. The fact that the band spend two years properly touring the album, and representing it in it's entirety live, only helped to create and cement the album's great reputation. While I believe that stronger individual songs exist elsewhere in the band's vast catalogue, Dressed in Voices is their most coherent an focused album. It was always going to be hard to top it, and the band broke their regular two year album cycle while working on Sight of Day. In fairness, band leader, vocalist, and lead guitarist Bryan Josh did release a solo album last year (which I reviewed here), which allowed him to experiment with some new songwriting ideas, but Mostly Autumn's main focus of late has been touring. Sight of Day was written and recorded last year however, and will see a general release in April. While I have the special pre-order edition, this review will only be focusing on the songs that make up the main album that will be available from retailers in a couple of months time. Despite the slightly longer wait than is usual, it is safe to say that Sight of Day is well worth the wait. Moving away from the dark depths of the Dressed in Voices concept, Sight of Day feels very refreshing and has a more upbeat vibe (despite some darker moments throughout). The sound here is less focused and more experimental, but with plenty of musical and lyrical nods to the band's past. Two of the band's alumni have returned to the fold for this album too. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Chris Johnson makes his second appearance on a Mostly Autumn album, and long-serving flautist Angela Gordon makes her long-awaited return to the studio with the band. Both last appeared on a Mostly Autumn album on Heart Full of Sky, and their contributions to Sight of Day definitely help to make it the special album that it is.

Interestingly enough, Sight of Day opens in a very similar way to Dressed in Voices, with doomy and melancholic piano melodies. The 14-plus minute title track, which has become the band's longest studio recording, is the perfect way to get this album going. Frontwoman Olivia Sparnenn-Josh takes the lead here, and her voice dominates the early part of the song as she duels effortlessly with the rolling piano melodies and subtle string backing. The song is in three distinct parts. The first is almost a stand-alone song which builds up in classic Mostly Autumn fashion to a dramatic chorus-climax which sees Sparnenn-Josh and Josh harmonising beautifully to form a powerful vocal attack. The melodies are extremely memorable here, and the mix of instruments is great. Iain Jennings' pulsing hammond organ washes drive this first part as it moves towards the epic chorus, and Andy Smith's bassline is surprisingly prominent and melodic. The second part is an instrumental section, dominated by Josh's effects-drenched guitar leads which are clearly influenced by his life-long love of Pink Floyd. The piano chimes away behind him and Alex Cromarty's swing-filled drumming really helps to bring this section to life. The third is an upbeat rocker, with driving acoustic guitar chords to fill out the sound and a stratospheric vocal display from Sparnenn-Josh. She really shows her range and power on this song, from the lower notes earlier on to the high notes during the song's closing moments. It is not exaggerating to suggest that this song could be Josh's greatest ever composition yet, and it is the perfect way to kick off this ambitious album. There are few songs that could successfully follow Sight of Day, so Once Round the Sun with it's more back-to-basics laid-back hard rock approach does well in this respect by being almost the antitheses of the epic title track. Those who are fans of Josh's 2008 solo album Through These Eyes will enjoy the simple approach of the song, wish Josh's strong vocal performance standing out. Jennings' organ playing is all over this song, and the washings of the instrument really help to take the listener back to the 1970s. The Deep Purple-esque riff-drive section towards the end sees the song take on a more heavier tone, and sees Gordon's first prominent contribution to the album with a cutting and jaunty flute line which works well alongside the guitars and keyboards. The Man Without a Name has another different vibe altogether. Entirely composed by Sparnenn-Josh, the song is a piano ballad that makes the use of the delicate side of her voice. It is a very simple song, with piano being the dominant instrument throughout. There are subtle guitar flourishes are are nearly tucked into the background, but this song is all about Sparnenn-Josh and her beautiful vocal display. Hammerdown has some of the band's classic murky and emotional tug and certainly brings back memories of 2010's Go Well Diamond Heart. Josh's bluesy guitar patterns really add to this feel, and the heavier choruses with plenty of keyboard layers and the vocal paring of Josh and Sparnenn-Josh packs quite a punch. While Josh mainly takes the lead on the vocal front, much of the song is sung in unison which has always been one of the band's big selling points. He also launches into one of his hugely emotional guitar solos in the song too, and you can almost hear the guitar bleed as he squeezes those notes out of it! Changing Lives is my favourite song on the album, with the exception of the title track. Composed and sung by Johnson, it is not your traditional Mostly Autumn song and instead sounds more like modern alternative bands like Anathema. While it is not as cutting as his work with Halo Blind, Changing Lives is certainly packed full of Johnson's spiky, yet melodic songwriting style and easily rivals his songwriting contributions for Heart Full of Sky. His fragile voice is perfect for this song, and his driving guitar rhythms and piano melodies perfectly suit his raw, high-pitched vocals. Sparnenn-Josh adds her harmonies throughout which really adds depth to the song, and makes the song's chorus, which has some fantastically rhythmic drumming, really float. The end of the song is mostly instrumental, with plenty of trademark Josh soloing, but there is a beautiful wordless vocal section which is extremely uplifting. These vocals were recorded at a couple of shows live last year, and the make-shift choir of fans really adds something to the end of this stunning song.

Again, Changing Lives is an extremely hard song to follow so the all-out hard rock of Only the Brave certainly helps to change the mood and give the album a bit of a energetic kick. Regular collaborator Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish) adds his customary uilleann pipes and whistles to the song, and new collaborator Anna Phoebe makes her debut guest appearance on a Mostly Autumn album with some excellent violin playing. The song is a driving rocker, with Josh's raw vocals standing out and Jennings' organ playing once again dominating. The song's highlight is the instrumental mid-section however, which sees the whole band (including Donockley and Phoebe) really rocking out with their instruments in a real folk rock workout. While it can sound a little chaotic at first, there is so much enthusiasm here that you cannot help but get drawn in. Native Spirit is the only song on the album that I feel has not yet really clicked with me. It is another lengthy song, and at over 10 minutes in length it does seem to drag a little. Josh's lyrics are very strange here, and just gives the song a bit of a weird overall tint. That being said, there is some great guitar playing throughout this song, with lots of solos scattered throughout in which Josh really gets to cut loose. When the song really ramps up towards the end however it does really start hit home. The dramatic symphonic arrangement suits the song, and has a bit of drama and soaring melody that the rest of the song is missing. While Native Spirit is certainly not a weak song, there is certainly a lot to like here, it is the one on the album which has made the least impact on me. Tomorrow Dies really helps to get the album back on track and contains one of Sparnenn-Josh's best ever vocal displays. It is the only song on the album co-written by Jennings and his synthy, modern influences are all over it. The drums have an effect on them which almost makes them sound like an 1980s drum machine which I am sure was done deliberately. It is a bit of a strange song at first, especially with the surprisingly down-beat verse kicks in after the driving synthy intro section, but by the time it hits the chorus the song really takes off. This is where Sparnenn-Josh really shines, and her voice leaps out of the speakers with such force it almost knocks you over. Given Jennings' heavy involvement in the song, it is not a surprise that keyboards are the dominant sound. Lots of different keyboard types and sounds are used throughout and it is one of the few Mostly Autumn songs were synths dominate as a opposed to the more traditional and organic keyboard sounds. It works really well however, and adds a slightly disco-rock edge to this part of the album. Like it's namesake Hammerdown, Raindown is another murky and emotional piece. The opening is dominated by Phoebe's violin, but it is unsurprisingly Sparnenn-Josh that steals the show again with a hugely emotional and dramatic vocal display. Donockly and Gordon both add their magic to the song, the latter with some lovely flute lines. While the song is quite long, it never feels it as the emotion and fantastic playing from the whole just washes over you. Sparnenn and Gordon harmonise beautifully on the vocals towards the song's end, and the guitar solo that follows fits the mood perfectly. The album's closing number, Forever and Beyond, is a surprisingly low-key song that really harks back to the band's early days with Gordon's whistle lines and plenty of acoustic guitars. Again, the song is mostly sung in unison between Josh and Sparnenn-Josh and their voices mix together perfectly to suit the upbeat but floaty feel of the song. For an album that is so diverse and packed full of contrasting emotions, it is fitting that the album ends with a stripped-back simple song that highlights the band can do the basic things just as well as they can do the complex. Overall, Sight of Day can only be described as a triumph. While I am clearly biased, and my love for Mostly Autumn knows no bounds, they really have pulled it out of the bang on this one.  Whether it ends up topping Dressed in Voices remains to be seen, but we already have an early contender for Album of the Year and I cannot see it being topped!

While the album will be officially released to retailers on 7th April 2017 via Mostly Autumn Records, those who pre-ordered the special edition of the album direct from the band started to receive their copies in the week beginning 6th February 2017.


  1. As always Sam Lewis,a well structured review,and while my views may differ on the best song,can see where you are coming from,perhaps a conflict may occur after more listens!!!

  2. i would take issue with the comment 'good value for money' on the pre orders. i believe that a lot of long term fans started to lose patience with the band for over inflated prices and minimal packaging and content. compared to other bands that were doing a similar thing. no doubt in the quality of music (though not all to my taste since glass shadows)

    1. I agree - Sight of Day is the first Mostly Autumn album I haven't pre-ordered since Passengers, and the price was a big reason. I don't mind saying it as I seem to be in the minority, but I wasn't a big fan of Dressed in Voices, so that weighed heavily in my decision too (which was still a very difficult one).

      I don't want to knock the band for charging £20+ however, as there are a large number of super-talented musicians to pay, who probably spend a long time in the studio. It's not easy to be a musician for a living, and if it came to the choice, I would rather pay £25 for an album, if the alternative meant I'd never be able to see them live again. Their gigs are a highlight of any year, particularly at Christmas, and the recent Leamington Spa festivals. Anna Phoebe has been a stunning addition too, so I can't wait to hear her playing on the new album, and hope she continues to guest at gigs. And some of my favourite songs have come from the limited edition CDs.

      I've ended up buying the limited edition afterall - last weekend I saw someone had posted a song on YouTube, which I love. I'm eagerly awaiting the album's arrival!

  3. P.S. Thanks for the great review. It definitely sounds like it's going to be more "my kind of" Mostly Autumn album.

  4. Interesting comments re value for money. I guess it depends on what you put the value on. For me, I think it is well worth the £20 odd quid to get the album earlier than release, help to fund the album's recording (let's not forget there are no labels here financing these recordings), and to get the extra bonus discs (which for me is the main reason for getting the special editions). The bonus disc with this album is probably my favourite of all the bonus discs since 'Heart Full of Sky'. I agree the packaging is never as good as many other bands however, but I guess I just don't place as much value on that as others.