The Performance Of A Lifetime: The Granite Shore’s Suspended Second

Who knew an album of global, personal and spiritual disappointment could sound so beautiful, so uplifting? By Mick Middles.

This is a pop record, and defiantly so, although at first glance it may not look like one. As with all Occultation Recordings, it arrives wrapped in distinctive, mildly foreboding cover art befitting a label that gathers artists pensively looking towards their shrinking futures. Much of this extraordinary collection of artists may be technically middle-aged but on no album since the label’s inception in 2008 has a single staid note or lyric bubbled to the surface. Latter-day thoughtful outings from Manchester’s The Distractions – The End of the Pier and this year’s hugely evocative Kindly Leave The Stage – exist as perfect examples of the vibrant angst of ageing. I was close to The Distractions 40 years ago when, as young intelligent scamps scurrying around the city causing sexual havoc on every corner, they inadvertently invented the concept of actually being ‘a Distraction’. It was a state of mind crossed with magnetic lust and a thirst for knowledge. They also had, in Mike Finney, one of the finest soul voices of his generation, a man who could twist the lyrics and music of Distractions songwriter Steve Perrin into bolts of pop genius. They never had a hit. Other Occultation acts seem similarly blessed with greatness and soul-building sheer bad luck – Martin Bramah’s muse fired the blinding brilliance of the first Fall album and the evergreen Blue Orchids and, latterly, Occultation band Factory Star. One more example of the richness that arrives with age.

This is all relevant here because The Granite Shore sits one stage beyond an amalgam of Occultation artists. John Howard, who has released as a solo artist on the label, adds resonance and echo to the vocal structures here; Arash Torabi, who did time in The Distractions and is, incidentally, one of my favourite bass players on the planet, trawls The Granite Shore’s low end. Most important of all is label owner, songwriter, guitarist, keyboard player and vocalist Nick Halliwell, the central and guiding force of this unique concept.

Halliwell, too, was fleetingly a Distraction as the band reconvened under the Occultation umbrella half a decade ago. He added his own distinctive songwriting twist which included the weird, unsettling ‘Oil Painting’ – a song which Finney again tugged into a whole new state of meaning. You will find big chunks of similar emotive angst here, on this remarkable outing.

By now, you may catch the drift. The Granite Shore is an Occultation concept that may, one day, perform on a stage. To date, there has been no such activity and, given the geographical placement of the band members – Steve Perrin lives in Australia, Mike Finney (should he return to the Granite Shore fold) lives in Holmfirth. Logistics govern movement here. But not on record.

The first Granite Shore album – 2015’s Once More From the Top – turned many heads and has even been cited as ‘album of the decade’, although I found it slightly too considered. There were a number of vocalists on that album, including Finney and Halliwell, as well as Bramah on guitar. Maybe it was a stretch too far. Suspended Second is a different beast. Neither Finney nor Bramah feature, although Howard provides the piloting vocal light. (Howard, a musical ghost child of Bury, once signed to CBS and Cherry Red). Of course, Perrin’s ghost also hovers with intent, as does Torabi, acoustic guitarist Phil Wilson and, taking over from the sadly departed Mike Kellie, drummer Ian Henderson.

So there we have trawled the complexities of background. No such confusion given the music. Halliwell has often stated that, immediately prior to recording, he will listen to a godly chunk of Abba, and their influence constantly drifts to the surface in this, perhaps the most affecting pop album since ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love. Of course, the comparison ends beyond the listening experience. This is 2017 and no pop stars will be created here, but similarities exist in terms of flowing hooks and neat dipping phrases. The other, most obvious and most recent link is Arcade Fire’s drift towards Abba-isms with Everything Now, which has attained the most dizzyingly mixed reception in recent memory (and the title track of which steals so effectively from, of all songs, ‘Dancing Queen’). The spectre of Swedish genius is never too far from the central sonic plot of Suspended Second. It even invades opening track ‘So It Begins’, which sets the course by hookily latching onto a pop music that tugs at the general bewilderment of people lost in these extraordinary times. Halliwell explains it beautifully: “Suddenly we were overtaken by what felt like a national self-harming anxiety episode, which then went global.”

There is never a dull moment here. By the time you get to the standout track, ‘The Performance of a Lifetime’ (what a Distractions song that would have been) you are left in no doubt that, above all else, this is an album offering great and wholly affecting beauty. The song shifts into an unexpected rural space as it slowly climbs to a concluding rolling chant – infectious, rewarding and utterly irresistible: “We will send you sweetly to your rest / Beyond all noise, beyond all violence / We will send you sweetly to your rest / And as you know, the rest is silence.”

Emotionally charged pop for emotionally charged times. I hit the repeat button five times in a row on this track, hoping to soak in this effortless, simplistic beauty, towards the close of an album stacked with such moments. This is just one of a number of songs that, despite sitting squarely on a base of pop tones, lyrically rally against the fecklessness of Brexiteers. “What news from England? / Are they happy are they free?” runs the lyric, a reflection of Halliwell’s angst in the wake of that dramatic vote. Even the ship of Occultation wobbled in the wake of this, the entire localised situation seemingly landing amid this nine-song tumble of reflection and resignation.

That Abba link never fades and most noticeably – cheekily, perhaps – the descending chords of ‘SOS’ lead you straight into otherwise sweet remorse of ‘Someone Else’. The balance between those pop tones and the album’s dark heart is never more delicately struck. Even Arcade Fire’s recent attack didn’t stretch to such delicious absurdity, although it tried.

So this is the place that flies between the white and the black. A seductive record that works perfectly during varying stages of the listener’s sobriety. It is also the most neatly clipped hook-laden collection of songs in 2017 thus far: a weird and fine accessibility sits at every corner.

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