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A Storm In Heaven: Verve's Debut Album 20 Years On
Joe Clay , November 12th, 2013 04:51

Joe Clay laments the two decade old version of the Verve who hadn't yet fallen under the spell of Noel Gallagher...

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For the many who buy into the narrow (and sadly pervasive) Britpop-centric account of recent music history, the Verve story begins in 1994 and their patronage by the Gallagher brothers, with Noel writing ‘Cast No Shadow’ about Ashcroft, and Ashcroft apparently returning the favour by naming The Verve’s second album, 1995’s A Northern Soul, in honour of the Oasis leader. But this version of events completely disregards their one true masterpiece – debut album A Storm In Heaven, released by Virgin subsidiary Hut Records in June 1993.

A sign of its lowly standing is that it just scraped the NME’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, in with a whimper at No 473, beaten by the good, yet inferior, A Northern Soul (390) and the bombastically formulaic Urban Hymns (128). Not that one should get too hung up about subjective lists on websites, but it is representative of how the album is seen in critical circles – it is barely mentioned in any of the dispatches referencing the period. There’s a great story on the YouTube link for the full album stream of A Storm in Heaven that sums up the prevailing attitude, as one poster recalls going to a Verve gig around this time and calling out for ‘Slide Away’ (the first American single release from A Storm In Heaven) and being told, “That’s an Oasis song, mate”, by the bloke standing next to him.

When they first emerged, Verve (before they were forced to add a “The” by the American jazz label of the same name), like many bands of the time, were lumped into the shoegaze scene pretty much by dint of the fact that their moniker was singular as per the vogue (Ride, Lush, Moose etc), and lead guitarist Nick McCabe’s desire to make his guitar sound like anything but what it was via a vast array of delay and effects pedals à la Kevin Shields. But Verve were from Wigan, not the Thames Valley, and at the outset Ashcroft didn’t even wear shoes – not since Zola Budd has one human being’s eschewing of footwear caused such consternation in the media – and “Mad Richard” (as Melody Maker unforgettably pegged the shoeless freak) was very much gazing at the stars.

In fact, on A Storm In Heaven’s opening track ‘Star Sail’, Ashcroft is ensconced in Heaven in an otherworldly rapture, peering through the clouds to the world below, enveloped in McCabe’s magisterial, reverb-soaked guitars. “Hello, it’s me, it’s me,” he beseeches. “It’s me throwing stones from the stars on your mixed up world.” Reined in from the epic Doors-meets-Can space-rock indulgences of their previous singles, ‘She’s A Superstar’ and ‘Gravity Grave’, ‘Star Sail’ clocked in one second shy of four minutes. Part of the reason for this sudden and much-needed focus was the presence of the producer John Leckie, as Nick Southall revealed on his excellent piece on the album for Stylus in 2003: “Verve went into the studio with half a dozen riffs, half a dozen half-baked lyrics and a thousand ideas of ways to reach the sky. Leckie managed to seize the controls and apply the necessary degree of restraint and maturity, guiding the band back down to earth when they threatened to fly too close to the sun.”

Ashcroft’s spaced-out hippy schtick was very much part of the debate at the time, with writers trying to ascertain whether he was genuinely “on one”, the elastic-limbed Jagger doing Yoga on shrooms of the 1992 Camden Town Hall performance, or just playing the role of tripped-out, mystical shaman. Prior to the band he was studying philosophy, religion and theatre studies, all areas covered by his “Mad Richard” persona. Like Brett Anderson of Suede, Ashcroft was adamant about the need to resurrect the notion of stardom during a period where these sort of aspirations were frowned upon. Given how quickly he reverted to conventional rock star tropes after being abducted by the Gallaghers, it’s no wonder his authenticity was called into question, but this doesn’t make A Storm In Heaven any less dazzling.

Not that all the music press were in agreement – Vox magazine gave it an underwhelming 6 out of 10, concluding that it was an album where “song structure and silly things like choruses are subservient to atmosphere and vibes”. This was partly true, but ignored the euphoric ‘Slide Away’, very much a “proper” song (it scraped into the Top 100 of the UK Singles Chart) with a verse and a chorus where Ashcroft sings, “I was thinking maybe we could go outside/ Let the night sky cool your foolish pride/ Don't you feel alive?/ These are your times and our highs”, while McCabe lets loose hurricane-force flurries of distorted riffs.

Vivid lead single ‘Blue’, the missing link between Murmur-era R.E.M. and Loop and driven by drummer Pete Salisbury’s relentless beat, was also a linear construct. In the video Ashcroft, with his sunken junkie cheekbones dug out of his face with a spoon, shakes maracas like a demented marionette and elbows his way through a crowd of moshers and female face-lickers in a subterranean club scene. The clip pre-dates the aggro Ashcroft barging his way down Hoxton Street in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. At the end the band all emerge, wide-eyed, from Thor’s Cave in Staffordshire, the one from the album’s cover (designed by Brain Cannon, who would go on to do all the artwork for the first glut of Oasis releases), blinking into the light like astronauts returned from the (dark side of the) moon.

However, tracks such as ‘Already There’ really show this era Verve in all their glory, bringing Pink Floyd atmospherics into play (producer Leckie was the engineer on Dark Side Of The Moon) and McCabe revealed his versatility, starting by dripping delicate, trippy guitar fills over Salisbury’s subtle drums. “Seen it all, I’m already there,” sings a disembodied Ashcroft, having ingested enough psychedelics to make it to the other side without carking it. The song shifts effortlessly through the gears until Ashcroft is chuntering away in a messianic trance with McCabe’s glowing, incendiary riffs and the groove of Salisbury and bass player Si Jones who, like Mani, could inject a dose of lithe funk into even the whitest of male rock histrionics.

It wasn’t just the textured, ambient music that was the antithesis of what Britpop would come to stand for. Ashcroft, when he wasn’t howling into the void, could also write lyrics that reflected a gentle, thoughtful soul. On the soothing ‘Beautiful Mind’ he ponders, “A beautiful mind or a beautiful body”, before swiftly deciding, “I know which one I'm gonna end upon” – a million miles away from “She's got one in the oven/ But it's nothing to do with me” and all the horrible unreconstructed new-Laddism beloved of the Britpop massive. On the raging ‘The Sun, The Sea’ Ashcroft details an intense, head-fuck relationship between two people off their noggins on strong pharmaceuticals. “She calls me the sun, the sea”, he sings, which is a lot better than being scolded for forgetting to put the bins out. “Can I guide you?” he requests, before losing his shit to McCabe’s tidal waves of feedback and skronking free-jazz saxophones from the in-demand Kick Horns. Soon, parping brass would be a pre-requisite for all indie guitar bands, but here was a way of harnessing the sound without one iota of misty-eyed colliery band nostalgia.

More wild brass adorned the conclusion of the crazed and elemental ‘Butterfly’, memorably described in meteorological terms by the Graveyard Poet on Julian Cope’s Head Heritage site: “Gusts of wind and rain, flashes of thunder and lightning, rolling vapours. Guitars layered atop one another build and build until the clouds burst. The wanderer (and the listener) is caught out in the weather as maddening saxophones and trumpets freeze the downpour into hail, ice, and snow which plummet in a blizzard upon the lost soul as he struggles to find his way back home.” There are even flutes on the rambling ‘Virtual World’; the meandering, fluttering flutes beloved of prog rocks bands like Jethro Tull, but rather than this being unwelcome, it is another sign of the musicality of the record. It was practically unheard of for bands of this period to embrace sensitive woodwind instruments. Salisbury utilises soft hands on the percussion, while Ashcroft sings with an eerie falsetto over McCabe’s evocative acoustic strumming.

Ashcroft, the man who stated he was “Born to fly” on debut single ‘All In The Mind’ was brought crashing down to Earth by his association with the Gallaghers; the saucer-eyed loon of the band’s early days ironed flat by Liam and Noel’s boorish baloney, moving into egotistical rock star and dreary singer-songwriter territory with frightening ease. The band, with a crushing inevitability, fell with him. “It’s interesting to note that some of the bands brought to mind by Storm… have gone on to become flabby, globe-straddling dinosaurs. Verve have this in them,” noted Andrew Smith, presciently, in Melody Maker in May 1993.

“Maybe with the new LP, A Storm In Heaven, the doors are finally being broken down as far as expression on record, and expression as far as the band are concerned,” Ashcroft told Lime Lizard in an interview published around the album’s release. “The way I look at it is that it's time for people who want to create to create, and people who want to be out there in mediocrity to sink.” Unfortunately, Britpop valued mediocrity over creativity, and the band’s inspiration diminished as a result. The Verve aren’t the only band in danger of being remembered for their worst songs, but there’s still time to set the record straight.

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Nov 12, 2013 11:23am

Must dig this out - haven't listened to it in years! I remember it as very of a certaintime and place, young men on an record company advance and lots of drugs. It captured that expansiveness really well I think and there's a great rarities/B sides compilation as well which I have somewhere. But I still prefer Northern Soul - much more focused and with the clear gaze and steely resolve of the comedown.

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JuJu Bone
Nov 12, 2013 12:24pm

Has anybody got the footage from their Glastonbury appearance that year where they went into something like a 13 minute version of Gravity Grave and refused to leave the stage?

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Nov 12, 2013 12:32pm

Not a fan of Britpop then?

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Nov 12, 2013 12:41pm

Nick McCabe and Pete Salisbury = celestial ^__^

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Nov 12, 2013 12:52pm

Love this album, but A Northern Soul's a much better, more focused record. Stormy Clouds!

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Nov 12, 2013 1:01pm

I adore this album. Recently purchased the 'Verve EP' which was re-released on vinyl for Record Store Day (still copies on Amazon, treat yourself, it's on lovely red vinyl) and was blown away be revisiting that too after many years. Can I strongly urge anyone with a fondness for Storm in Heaven to track down the Kurofune EP by Nick and Si's new band Black may not have the complete package of early Verve but it's a really amazing 25 mins of music which made me think more of Godspeed than anything in the realms of Britpop. Link is here:

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Nov 12, 2013 1:15pm

Thank for the link to the Camden gig. I was there but my recollections are rather woolly to say the least.... Never thought I'd get to experience it again - it's excellent. And yes, Verve did lose something special when they added "The" and decided to start writing about being dumped by girlfriends and how shit everything is. The opening 4 tracks of' A Storm' are perfect. (Not sure The Sun The Sea should be 5th) However, A Northern Soul still does have some great moments though - A New Decade and Life's an Ocean to name but two....

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Nov 12, 2013 1:15pm

Saw them play live a couple of times in the 'Mad Richard' years. Think he had his shoes off but can't be sure! They were a great live band though - I remember that much.

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Joe Clay
Nov 12, 2013 1:33pm

I don't actually hate Britpop. What I hate is the revisionist version of events that seems to completely ignore most of the British music released post-Madchester and pre-Britpop - basically the years 1992-1993. Suede are a prime example of this, and I have written about Ride's criminally overlooked second album Going Blank Again on here before. Music in Britain didn't stop between Screamadelica and Definitely Maybe/Parklife. Many music writers (some of whom I admire greatly) have that period pegged as the grunge years - a wilderness for good British music that Britpop saved. Basically there were no scenes to peg the music to (but by God how the music press tried!)so many wonderful albums are completely ignored as they don't fit into this simplistic version of recent musical history.

I exchanged emails recently with the amazing Nick Talbot (of Gravenhurst and also a writer for this site) and he nailed it thus, with far more clarity and perception than I could muster - "there's an absurd tendency to see everyone as actors in an historical progression… it has a daft Hegelian, teleological slant to it and you see it everywhere in music writing: music treated as the soundtrack to history [that] is marching deterministically towards an inevitable end point.”

This is what I am kicking against.

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Nov 12, 2013 2:10pm

In reply to Joe Clay:

struggling to see any clariity in this sort of thing: "daft Hegelian... teleological... marching deterministically".

Pretentious, Moi?

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Nov 12, 2013 3:07pm

Nice to see a tribute to one of the greatest records ever made. No album has had such an impact on my relationship with life. I keep waiting for people to realize that this is one of the all-time great pieces of music. I have to disagree that the decline was a sharp as you suggest though. A Northern Soul is just as good. It's a monstrous slab of psych funk insanity with really insightful lyrics. Urban Hymns is solid too, despite being a bit too heavy on mid-tempo ballads. It's important to remember that that album was slated to be an Ashcroft solo record. Even Forth (the deluxe edition with bonus tracks) as a few works of genius, and the best rhythm section in rock. But fuck, how did the man who wrote Already There and Drive You Home make the United Nations of Sound???

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Nov 12, 2013 3:33pm

Good article, but I disagree about about the ''steady decline''.
A Northern Soul was a genius, and a much better album. UH was also good, even though it doesn't touch the previous two brilliance.

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A Clockwork Lozenge
Nov 12, 2013 4:02pm

In reply to JuJu Bone:

A great evaluation of a record that, as suggested here, has been overlooked due to the lumpen porridge that followed. I still clearly remember watching them play Gravity Grave as the sun went down at Glastonbury with Mad Richard howling "We've got one minute left" like it was the end of the world. I've never seen footage of it, but a live recording was released on the rarities collection No Come Down and it still gives me goose bumps...

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Nov 12, 2013 4:36pm

ищу друзей

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Nov 12, 2013 5:10pm

By far my favorite Verve album. Their sound circa 1992/1993 was their most exciting, I think.

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Nov 12, 2013 5:11pm

I've been going back to this record since it came out and coincidentally have been listening to it recently. In my view it's a classic. It was so cool at the time and it still sounds different today. The perfect antidote to the 80's bands that had run out of ideas. It was a great drug album that I also discovered works very well with Blade Runner (with the sound turned down). Make sure you get the initial opening shot in sync with that first guitar surge. That was the Dark Side/Wizard of Oz of our generation! Great memories just about and still a great record.

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Nov 12, 2013 5:23pm

The best thing about the Verve is how quickly they evolved. It would have been nice if they'd made more songs like those on the first 3 EPs, the esctatic, dreamy riots of noise. But then we might not have received this blessing from the Creator. And if they'd spent more time mining this sound we'd not have got the psychotic exorcism of A Northern Soul with its myriad styles of psych. They were never the same after the first break-up. McCabe did a great interview with the NME in the spring, and a crack-up was inevitable. They simply did way too many drugs.

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Nov 12, 2013 5:57pm

In reply to SY:

Ignoramus, toi?

Ffs man, there are dictionaries and thesaurus two-a-penny online. Look stuff up and look upon it as chance to expand your vocabulary and learn more about the world, or in this case how philosophy intersects with music history and how journalists approach it.

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Nov 12, 2013 5:57pm

Without question my favorite album of all time.

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Nov 12, 2013 8:15pm

I rarely leave comments on articles like this simply because I doubt the writers have time to check back and read them, but I can't not say this about this retrospective article: THANK YOU. I'm glad someone in the music journalism circles appreciates this record...heck, I'm glad I'm not the only one who knows and loves it, reading the comments here.

Admittedly, I got into the Verve in '97 while I was in my teens and Britpop was in full swing. I worked my way through their back catalogue straight away though, and could hardly believe that this - along with their early singles and EP - were the same band. There's a lot to be said for evolving your sound, and there's much to enjoy in A Northern Soul and what came after, but this album stands as one of my all-time favourites. Ashcroft? Nah. This was when all four of them had something to contribute...and personally Nick's otherwordly, inspirational guitar work is what I remember most. I'm quite glad that Black Submarine have got that new record together - nick and Si deserve some more widespread respect by now!

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Nov 12, 2013 9:17pm

The Verve have been one of the main victims of the ongoing swing towards poptimism. They're seen as representing a certain level of glowering pomposity and are blamed for the likes of Embrace, Starsailor and all these other purveyors of billious, meandering rock.
I say sod it! Richard Ashcroft has a goregous voice nad Nick McCabe has been under-rated for too long. The Verve had a grace and charisma that their imitators could never match and made three albums that were all magical in different ways.

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Nov 12, 2013 10:09pm

A brilliant band live and on record. They were always better when they were 'grooving' though, regardless of which period ( see come on , gravity grave or life's an ocean). Due to them being One of the few indie bands with a stellar rhythmn section, big fans of Can and Funkadelic apparently. There are other b sides not on No Come Down that deserve a mention too - let the damage begin and country song to name but two.
Saw them supporting Spiritualized at the T & C around the time of the first single. Got pissed off with the crowd and jammed one song continuously for about 40 mins and then fucked off!

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Thad McKraken
Nov 12, 2013 10:20pm

The first two albums I really got into when I started smoking pot as a teenager were this and Dopes To Infinity by Monster Magnet. I still, to this day, think those are two of the best albums ever made. I always thought this edged out Loveless by MBV. Sorry, way better guitar work, way more interesting songwriting. I often find myself wondering, what the fuck ever happened to Nick McCabe's guitar playing? Christ is it genius on this album.

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Stevie Beezy
Nov 12, 2013 10:50pm

A few problems with a anti-revisionist revision of A Storm in Heaven. Firstly, I found the album a slight let down at the time because the three singles which preceded it (All in the Mind, She's a Superstar, Gravitiy Grave) were phenomenal.

Next, the idea that the Gallaghers are solely to blame for Ashcroft's transformation from psychedelic trip-enhancer to MoR memory-rocker is nonsense. The Verve's inclusion on the Lollapalooza line-up really changed the personalities of the band, Ashcroft went nuts on that tour, snorting and drinking his way from state to state and buying in to the US rock star image 110%. Check this interview with a humble Ashcroft backstage at Glastonbury in 1993:

Now watch him a year later, after almost completing Lollapalooza and definitely acting lad-rock, yet "Supersonic" wasn't even released by Oasis at this time.

It's weird to have an article claiming to kick against the revisionists, which is basically just revising a point in time to be part of the old "Gallaghers ruined music in the 90s" point of view. It was far less black and white and far more exciting and diverse a time was had by all involved.

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Nov 13, 2013 2:23am

Please keep this article atop the home page forever.

This is the best album ever made.

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Nov 13, 2013 9:34am

In reply to Stevie Beezy:

I think this is fairly true. It wasn't all down to the Gallaghers. You also have to remember that when Oasis were playing around Manchester before Supersonic came out they sounded a bit like Verve with jams on tunes like Columbia. They weren't as ethereal as anything on Storm In Heaven but there was common ground and obviously Noel was a fan.

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Nov 13, 2013 1:59pm

In reply to Anonymous:

Oasis opened for the Verve in 93/94 anyway. They were pals pretty much from the get-go. Ashcroft's aggro rock star persona probably had more to do with increased drug use and a change of stimulants than the Gallaghers. More money, bigger tours, better drugs, particularly if you're into drugs.

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Nov 13, 2013 3:11pm

An album rightfully deserving a retrospective such as this. I actually enjoy all The Verve material (including about half of Forth!). Funny enough that all the stargazing and philosophizing from Storm in Heaven is now what most commonly pervades Ashcroft's overall limp solo work - lyrically, it's just not as good on one hand, but on the other hand, that type of thing is much elevated by McCabe's guitarscapes. At least on Urban Hymns, Ashcroft wisely stayed with more grounded, personal lyric fare on the acoustic and string laden tunes and keeps his spacey stuff for the heavier, more electric tracks. On his solo work, he unfortunately marries the worst of both worlds.

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Matt Cousin
Nov 13, 2013 7:17pm

I love this album, which rarely gets a mention,and A Northern Soul too, but felt let down by Urban Hymns. Without getting all 'they're MY band and now they are popular I don't like them' it seemed strange to see what was an outsider's band championed by the exact same Lads who a couple of years before would have tried to start a fight on a weekend if you looked vaguely different, especially in a small town.

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Nov 13, 2013 10:04pm

One night in 1994-95 in Leeds, my mate Chris stood pissed up next to Ashcroft, badgering him for a lighter at an Oasis gig at the height of their ascension. He said "THIS LOT HAVE STOLEN YOUR THUNDER MATE"to which Ashcroft replied (something along the lines of) "DON'T WORRY SUNSHINE- WE'LL BE BACK"... I didn't believe him until I read an interview with 'Mad Rich' ten years later in Q MAGAZINE where Ashcroft RETELLS THE VERY SAME STORY making my mate CHRIS (in)directly responsible for U.H... So all you U.H. haters can BLAME MY DRUNK MATE CHRIS....

Great piece by the way...

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Moonee Ponds
Nov 13, 2013 10:27pm

Coincidentally, I gave A Storm In Heaven a listen a few weeks back - for the first time in MANY years - with the intention of it being one final misty-eyed spin before I packed it off to the charity shop. However, I own much better speakers nowadays than when I originally purchased the CD, & consequently it sounded IMMENSE, so I decided to hang onto it...

The Verve's early EPs still sound pretty special too, particularly A Storm In Heaven's companion-piece, Gravity Grave.

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Lemonhaze Sky-Diver
May 20, 2014 2:34pm

One of my favourite albums from the 90's. So brilliant, druggy and ethereal. The first EP is good as this.

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Donovan Bell
Mar 4, 2015 12:01pm

Man I'd forgotten all about these songs. Several classics! Think I'm in the mood for some of the Verve's stuff now actually.

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Jon Hall
Mar 22, 2015 12:37am

Easily their best album, it just transports you to a place no other band at the time even knew existed. Truly a forgotten classic.

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