Alice Sweet Alice are a fascinating proposition. So hard to pigeonhole, one reviewer dubbed them ‘electropostpunkadelic’ which, if it tells you anything, tells you that their music defies even that somewhat preposterous tag. The band are a mere four years old and 2011 sees them releasing their third full-length album, entitled ‘Mandala’, and it would seem that time and experience have not caused them to let up on the variety of their influences.
Carrying myriad influences it may be, but ‘Mandala’ still succeeds in being a cohesive ride thanks to the band’s skilful ordering of the tracks and a gloriously understated production job that allows the various instruments plenty of space to breathe and envelope the listener over the course of the record. It’s hard to say what you notice first about Alice sweet Alice, but it’s probably fair to say that Ali Kat’s vocals come fairly close to the top of the list. Tuneful and soulful, she is (thankfully) not given to the histrionics found on your average Evanescence album, instead opting for a tuneful drawl in the vein of The Kills or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, albeit with a significantly more interesting musical backdrop. First track ‘21st Century slavery’ is the perfect introduction to the band’s oeuvre. It has a breathy, writhing riff that recalls the alternative bands of the mid-nineties (sort of a hard rock belly playing the Cure isn’t too unreasonable a comparison) and right from the start it’s clear that the band know how to control the aggression, leading off with an atmospheric bass line and driving rhythms while the guitars carefully weave and play adding light and shade but not overpowering the subtly of the song’s clever composition. ‘Burden of truth’ is no less impressive, being a slow burning track full of smoky soul and charisma. Ali kat’s vocal, is once again a thing to marvel at, but the guitars are no less worthy of comment (step up Ron Bales) particularly on the sublime solo that rounds out the song and which shines with an almost progressive fervour.
Track three, ‘full circle’, contrasts a watery organ with a bouncing bass line and a vocal that sounds like it belongs in an underground bar at 2.am surrounded by smoke and whiskey, although when the track kicks off it has a huge electro-groove to it that is, although it probably shouldn’t be, rather unexpected. It’s a beguiling mix that would be equally at home on your personal stereo or on the dancefloor and it is a safe bet that live it kicks a fair amount of ass – either way it has ‘potential single’ written all over it thanks to its distressingly memorable hook. ‘Undone’, as its somewhat maudlin suggests, is a piano led ballad which is by far the most traditional track that the band approach on the album. It’s overblown, sentimental and yet strangely effective at yanking on the heart strings and in that respect, despite throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it (you’ll even find kettle drums providing accent!) it’s a remarkably successful ballad that works because the ban have the nous to know that when you want to go for something it best to go all out rather than produce some half-assed compromise – the result? ‘undone’ is a beautiful, haunting song that showcases a sensitive underbelly to the band’s otherwise untouchably cool approach.
Billy Brown’s excellent drumming leads off the next track, the hypnotic, swirling ‘3 tides’ – a real highlight on the album – whilst the lead vocal is provided by Scott Martinez, who proves to have a truly great voice. The track is a masterpiece, a slithering gem of gentle electronics, gently threatening guitar and occasional flare-bursts of violence as the chorus identifies a crunching riff that threatens to tear you out of your reverie at a moment’s notice – it’s an amazing song in every respect. ‘Falling under’ comes close to a Joy Division vibe with its lead-off bass line and piano stabs, although Ali Kat’s voice (thankfully) is not quite the spine-chilling auger of doom that Ian Curtis’ was, and the chorus is considerably heavier than Joy Division attempted during their all-too-brief lifespan. The final track, ‘broken mirror’ closes things on an emotive note with huge bursts of guitar and piano playing nicely off each other and a bewitching pop melody that holds your memory long after the final notes have faded from the stereo – for sure if you don’t find yourself humming this in the damndest of places then you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
An all-too-brief affair, ‘Mandala’ is a great record with not a single poor or out-of-place track running the flow. Top marks, too, for the wonderful packaging that, while basic, entertains by providing two colour in Mandalas for the listener to drift away with. It’s an unusual idea that raises a smile, while the music is guaranteed to make fans of intelligent and beautifully written alt-rock more-or-less ecstatic. Every minute of this thoroughly enjoyable record is a musical treat and ASA offer enough variety and innovation to keep you coming back to this one for months hence – well worth checking out.