THE SPEED OF SOUND – A Cornucopia: Minerva

Celebrating their thirty fifth year in the music business, Manchester’s The Speed of Sound have pulled out all the stops for the follow up for their critically acclaimed 2021 release ‘Museum of Tomorrow’. As it’s title suggests, ‘A Cornucopia’ offers fans a whole bounty of music, and the band have split that into three volumes. The first disc, ‘Minerva’ is a fourteen track indie-ish journey which explores a musical universe that takes in jangling retro guitar work, 60s fuzz, a bit of power pop and a few other styles.

Armed with sharp riffs that sound like a post-punk take on rockabilly fare, ‘West Wind’ doesn’t break in the listener particularly gently. Its mix of electric and acoustic riffs lay down some very sharp edges whilst John Armstrong and Anne-Marie Crowley trade off vocals, sounding like a lo-fi Bob Dylan and an off-kilter Debbie Harry respectively. It’s half a world away from some of the more indie-centric fare that filled the ‘Museum’ record, but at the same time, it’s natural flair and energetic feel is clearly from The Speed of Sound’s collective hand. It’s one of those tracks that has an edge that hits the listener immediately, but you might not feel the lyrical hooks make a direct connection. That is, until the second track kicks in, and you still find yourself thinking about the previous chorus during the intro! It’s a deceptively strong start, and once ‘SS-100-X’ swiftly changes the mood by focusing far more on acoustic rhythms, and John chugs his way through something that sounds like Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’ put through an early Mott filter, the quality continues to hold. Setting some very retro pop-rock in place, the band sound very confident, and despite wearing its chief influence really obviously, this still manages to be a number that keeps the audience engaged. Even once Anne-Marie arrives to flesh out the chorus with a very natural vocal and everything feels a bit more like The Speed of Sound, there’s a late 60s/early 70s haziness here that really suits the band.

The hazy feel is taken to further extremes on the slow ‘Trickledown’, a tune with dreampop guitars weaving echoing sounds over a sedate groove, and Anne-Marie sharing a tale where the privileged promise the world, but its all “pie in the sky”. Within a minute of this track, the marriage between the rhythm section and shimmering guitar lines is almost hypnotic, a near perfect callback to classic 4AD fare. It’s so good, that the slightly flat vocal feels a little intrusive in places, but never enough to spoil one of the album’s more “grown up” arrangements. Offering the polar opposite, ‘Clickbait’ taps into some sharp indie punk, and the track’s incessant riffs and sneering lyrics take The Speed of Sound much closer to bands like Fightmilk and Muncie Girls, which on musical level bares no relation to the band that delivered ‘Trickledown’ a couple of minutes earlier, or the hugely retro ‘SS-100-X’, but the constant tonal shifts are actually very welcome. They also show the band absorbing more “modern” influences for their own use rather effectively.

Changing the mood for a blend of indie and power pop, ‘Body Snatchers’ works a buoyant rhythm – somewhere between a classic McCartney rumpty-tumpty and one of XTC’s later power pop workouts – adds fey vocals that sound like a distant cousin of Robyn Hitchcock, and generally shows off The Speed of Sound’s most melodic side. Despite not even stretching to a full two and a half minutes, the band still manage to take this tune in an unexpected direction when a reggae influence colours an equally strong middle eight. In terms of alt-pop, it’s almost perfect. By comparison, ‘Half Life’ requires a lot more work on behalf of the listener, but its uneasy blend of indie jangle, Paisley Underground inspired retro-ness and unsettling Dylan-esque whine sort of works on its own merits. In many ways, it brings together many of the different elements within the Speed of Sound’s musical arsenal in one quick blast, and by stretching a similar formula on ‘Mind Palace’, a scattershot album actually starts to feel like it might be a little more coherent…maybe.

In terms of musicianship, things take another dramatic upturn when ‘Eight Fourteen Monday’ arrives with a lovely fretless bass sound augmented by a slightly jazzy drum part. Here, the band’s blend of light 60s fare and 90s indie really shines, but with the help of an understated piano, and more of a narrative lyric, it even adopts more of a melodic prog stance. In some ways, it wouldn’t be a great leap to imagine this somewhere on a Miller Test album, whilst the crashier sounding ‘So Faux’ gives drummer John Broadhurst an even bigger workout as he powers against a guitar dominated pop-rock-indie groove. When cutting through something ordinary with a loud, descending rhythm between the verses and filling a brilliant middle eight with a choppy post-punk groove worthy of early XTC, he shows off a great range, even though the core melodies never suggest such flamboyance. ‘Yet Another Tuesday’ also embraces a sharp edge and a lot of energy, allowing John plenty of room to wield the kind of riffs that would appeal to those who read NME and loved These Animal Men in a pre-Britpop landscape, and taking that mood a little further, Applying more of a groove, ‘The Great Accelleration’ pushes the drums higher in the mix, which offsets the vocal rather nicely without sounding forced. The track isn’t the album’s most flashy, but it captures the band’s more indie-centric side well, whilst ‘Question Time’ takes those indie influences and increses the energy. Fusing massive amounts of indie jangle and harmony vocals, this number shares something that sounds like Martha & The Muffins channelling a couple of old Manchester guitar bands. In some ways, this is the meat of the band’s sound, but as ‘Minerva’ shows elsewhere, The Speed of Sound can often be relied upon for more interesting arrangements.

Much like ‘Museum of Tomorrow’, this album values short tracks rather than introspective, lengthy jams, and that’s a smart move as it often helps ‘…Minerva’ to be accessible, despite being just part of a much bigger body of work. What really works here, though, is the band’s love of variety; if not for the distinctive vocals, ‘SS-100-X’, ‘Body Snatchers’, ‘Question Time’ and ‘Eight Fourteen Monday’, could pass as works from four different underground acts. Sometimes, the material works better when dipping in and out, rather than absorbing the album as a whole, but the exploration is half the fun. ‘Minerva’ may be just the first part of ‘A Cornucopia’, but if you liked The Speed of Sound before, it’s safe to say there’s already plenty for you to enjoy here.

May 2024