Shortly after leaving Mostly Autumn a year ago to embark upon a solo career, Heather Findlay stated that her musical ideas were coming out in too many different directions for it all to sit comfortably together as a coherent album. So instead, she outlined plans to release a series of EPs, each with a very different feel, quite possibly featuring different backing musicians as well.
The Phoenix Suite, produced by former Mostly Autumn colleague Chris Johnson, it the first of these. It features Roger Waters’ guitarist Dave Kilminster, bassist Steve Vantsis and drummer Alex Cromarty as well as Chris himself on guitar. A blog from Heather stated it would be “Bohemian, vibey and rocky”. While there’s been quite a bit of discussion, occasionally quite heated, regarding Heather’s relationship with progressive rock, her songwriting for Mostly Autumn has always been the straightforward rock numbers and heartfelt ballads rather than the big symphonic epics.
The five songs that make up the suite are very varied indeed. The EP opens with the grunge-flavoured hard rocker “Red Dust, sounding absolutely nothing like anything she’s ever done before. Then the brooding title track follows rather more familiar territory, with more than an echo of “Unoriginal Sin” from “Glass Shadows”. “Cellophane”, on the other hand is a spiky pop-rock number. The EP closes with the slow-burning “Seven” and the almost but not quite epic “Mona Lisa”. Much of the EP displays the highly melodic songwriting style that ought to be recognisable to anyone familiar both with her own songs for Mostly Autumn and her work with Odin Dragonfly. The lyrics are intriguing, laden with metaphor, and significantly darker than before.
Sonically it’s very different from what many existing fans may have expected. There’s a sparse, dry sound and very stripped-down arrangements, and while there are other influences there’s a strong alternative rock feel. No keyboards; in a few places there are guitar effects where piano chords or synth fills might have been the more obvious choice. One disappointment for me is there’s very little of Dave Kilminster’s lead guitar to act as a foil for Heather’s vocals; there are a couple of brief indie-style bursts, but at no point does he really cut loose.
The closest comparison I can think of would be with singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore, and there are moments that remind me of quirky 90s rockers Ordinary Psycho, or Polish goth-rockers Closterkeller. There’s also a hint not only of Panic Room but also of Anne-Marie Helder’s EP “The Contact”. There are certainly one or two places where Heather’s vocals sound like a lot those of her former band-mate.
The arrangements come over as a deliberate intent of sounding distinctly different from her previous bands. On songs like “Red Dust” or “Cellophane” this approach works very well, but in other places it does feel as if the songs would have benefited from a little more instrumental depth, especially given the capabilities of musicians working on the project.
It’s certainly a brave move away from the sort of sound she’s traditionally been associated with. Time will tell whether or not Heather has succeeded with the difficult balancing act of broadening her appeal to mainstream audiences while keeping her existing fans on board. I can imagine a few dyed in the wool classic rock fans struggling to love this record, even while they respect her desire to do her own thing. On the other hand, she could well pick up new followers among alt-rock and indie fans who might never have been prepared to give her earlier work a listen.
But for me, no amount of misgivings about the production or arrangements can overshadow the quality of the actual songs. I’m very much looking forward to hearing the whole thing performed live when she plays festival dates with the full band in the summer. This is still a record that deserves to be appreciated for what it is rather than condemned for what it isn’t. And with Heather suggesting the next EP may be electronic and experimental, I think she’s going to be taking us on an interesting and challenging musical journey over the coming months.
The EP is now on general retail release, but it’s still also available direct from the artist here.