IN RIBBONS was the second full-length album by Pale Saints, coming three years after their debut THE COMFORTS OF MADNESS. Here new guitarist and vocalism Meriel Barham joins first guitarist Graeme Naysmith, bass and vocalist Ian Masters, and drummer Chris Cooper. It's a superb album, one of my all-time favourite releases by the 4AD label, which has always had a high standard of quality.
The Pale Saints' first release had shown the then-trio to be firmly in the shoegazing camp, with lots of flange and mysterious production. But they stood apart from other acts for their outstanding musicianship. Sure, Naysmith's guitars were standard fare for shoegazing, but Masters' bass was refreshingly agressive, and Cooper's percussion ranks him up with David Narcizo as a master of indie rock drumming. Masters' voice, which floated high up like the tormented reincarnation of a Viennese choirboy, gave a highly individual touch. The songwriting was impressively strong too, with, for example, the changing times in "Time Thief" and the poignant lyrics of "Language of Flowers".
On IN RIBBONS, both of these elements are still present. The addition of Barham, however, makes for a fuller instrumental sound. At the same time, the production is remarkably less murky than on the first album, with Hugh Jones letting a bright, glittery sound come through compared to Fryer's dark and moody atmospheres on the first album. Most of the material is still contributed by Ian Masters. He provides vocals on all songs but three, and "Hair Shoes"--first heard as a chilling demo on the "Flesh Balloon" EP, now an awesome wall of sound-- and "Shell" seem to be entirely his idea. When Barham makes an appearance on vocals, in "Thread of Light", "Liquid", and "Featherframe" (possibly the most elegant song here) it is no jarring contrast, but a perfect harmony with existing tradition. The album famously closes with "A Thousand Stars Burst Open", a visionary track that subjects the sonic range of a jam band to the carefully considered structure of the Pale Saint's finest work.
As an additional fine feature of IN RIBBONS, one must mention the album artwork by the legendary designer Vaughan Oliver and his firm v23. The typography is based on that of the first album, but whereas v23 chose dark colours on THE COMFORTS OF MADNESS, we find rich yellow and white tones on IN RIBBONS that perfectly complements the luminosity of the sound.
If you like bands from the 4AD's middle period, such as Lush, Cocteau Twins, or heck, even Swallow, Pale Saints are sure to be a delight. And IN RIBBONS is one of their finest efforts, with remarkable staying power. Years after I've abandoned most of my 4AD collection, IN RIBBONS still gets a frequent listen.