Review | Minor Victories record a major triumph on their debut

Minor VictoriesMinor Victories Album Cover

Minor Victories

[Play It Again Sam Records]

It has to be said, the ‘supergroup’ is surely one the most underwhelming concepts in all of popular music. More often than not, the term proves to an ironic oxymoron, more self-serving than super. The idea, of course, being if you gather some of the most talented members of some of the most popular groups around, blend them all together, then in no time this ill-formed amalgamation will start dropping opuses at a rate akin to Prince in the 1980s.

This is rarely, if ever, the case. Generally, they end up as maligned musical projects, chock-full of incompatible egos, providing effective fodder for sub-100-word “news” items on music sites while offering up material that barely rises to the mediocre. It’s a cash grab for aging stars, as they draw from a variety of devoted fan bases. The supergroup is all but guaranteed to sell well, but those records mostly gather dust rather than acclaim. How many of us can be still said to be returning to the vacuous dad rock of Chickenfoot, the ill-advised hair metal revivalism of Velvet Revolver or the forgettable bleeps and bloops of Atoms For Peace?

And yet even with all that unfiltered cynicism that has just been displayed, the announcement of the formation of Minor Victories, and the players involved, did not induce a semblance of an eye roll. Before hearing a solitary note, one can already deduce that something about the group just seemed to make perfect sense. Rachel Goswell, Stuart Braithwaite and Justin Lockey are all musicians who, while certainly not carbon copy artists by any means, have been known to produce material that’s dripping with atmosphere. The moody, breathtaking shoegaze of Slowdive, the sparse, arresting minimal rock of Mogwai and the tightly-coiled post punk of Editors should make for an organic combination. Braithwaite, typical of him, gave an affable and succinct summation of the group when asked about their sound: “To be honest, I think if you know the music that all of us have made, it won’t really surprise you. It has a lot of the good elements from everyone’s bands.”

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Upon hearing their first, fearsome single A Hundred Ropes’, that Braithwaite quote is revealed to be at least half-true. There are certainly recognisable elements from all three of the bands here, but the song surprises by giving us a musical project that might actually be greater than the sum of its parts. Opening with some pulsating synths that wouldn’t be out of place in the most vein-throbbing 80s action flick, ‘A Hundred Ropes’ then glides forward assertively with grandiose, James Bond strings and Goswell sounding more determined then dreamlike as, eager to “find our own way home”. That “way home” could easily be found in the sounds of Minor Victories self-titled debut because its members find themselves on more assured footing then they’ve been on in years. The music here is not the type that’s manufactured by fledgling misfits but rather the kind constructed by an outfit that is already multiple albums into their discography.

Minor Victories are able to create sizeable scale out of simplicity. On the albums more ‘urgent’ tracks, the samey driving drum beat persists – a sort of up-tempo variation on the infamous one that opens ‘Be My Baby‘ – which provides a bullish backbone that invigorates the sizzling film score that surrounds it. Opener ‘Give Up The Ghost’ even starts off the record with a beautifully serene monotone that could accompany an opening shot of a slowly ascending sunrise. That is, until it erupts into a thunderous war march, evocative of HEALTH, with Goswell sneering “My blood is a raging river/surging through my veins”.

Braithwaite and co., however, also understand that it’s not all about the grandiose, and that sometimes less is more. ‘Folk Arp’ spends most of its lengthy running time with just some gentle strumming and even gentler Goswell proclamations until it builds to a kitchen-sink crescendo of shredding guitars and pounding drum work. ‘Folk Arp’ is perhaps most representative of the festinating central tension of the album; between the gorgeous and the garish, between Goswell’s elegant falsetto and the disquieting words she sings, between the cinematic strings and the roaring reverb. It’s the sort the album that Yeats, were he alive today, might call a work of “terrible beauty”.

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Considering Mogwai and Slowdive alum are involved, it should surprise no one that ear-screeching yet dazzling distortion plays a major part in impact of these songs. The wonderfully anthemic ‘Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)’ is like an early Jesus & Mary Chain song – except with much better singers – while ‘Cogs’ is a fizzling blast of energy that’s basically a Souvlaki track set to 78 RPM. While his main band my not have the critical masterworks that his peers do, the involvement of Editors’ Justin Lockey (along with his brother James) should not be understated. The tightly-compacted, crystal clear post punk of his day job is a good counterbalance to the more indulgent, left field alternative rock that his current cohorts champion. He could very well be the reason that Minor Victories, even in their infancy, have such a focused and singular vision.

It’s not all a smooth and cohesive ride, however. The presence of featured artists Sun Kil Moon and The Twilight Sad feel rather shoehorned in and it’s on these rare occasions that the album does actually appear to fall into the trap of the overloaded supergroup. Mark Kozelek’s appearance on ‘For You Always’ is especially, clumsily bemusing. It’s not that he’s particularly bad, but rather that his “This happened and then this happened” rambling style sounds out of place when not backed up by his signature acoustic melancholy. In this soundscape, it doesn’t work. If you ever a wanted a sonic representation of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, look no further.

These shortcomings can be forgiven though. Minor Victories the album succeeds by being somehow, refreshingly retro. The sounds here are familiar but the manner in which the variety of ingredients is blended together makes for an intriguing recipe. 90’s revivalism is rampant at the moment, but a modern, cinematic tweaking is what gives these songs the edge. Minor Victories the band succeeds by breaking the much-maligned curse of the supergroup. This is not just a minor victory, but a major one.