Mostly Autumn – Ten of the Best

Heather Findlay and Olivia Sparnenn at Gloucester Guildhall in 2009

Another Ten of the Best for a band which have featured a lot on this blog ever since the beginning.

As you should have come to expect by now, this is ten of the best, not the “ten best”, and omits some of most the obvious standards in favour some of the overlooked diamonds in the back catalogue.

The Night Sky

The evocative closing number of their 1997 début was the perfect combination of Bryan Josh’s love of Pink Floyd with the Celtic atmospherics that characterised the band’s early years. Not only does it play out with a soaring solo from Josh, but was also a showcase for the electric violin of Bob Faulds, who was to leave the band after first two albums, but whose playing dominated their early years. While it’s never featured in regular touring setlists in recent years, it always gets a welcome live airing whenever the band play a one-off gig with a guest violinist such as Peter Knight or Anna Phoebe.

The Gap is Too Wide

One of Iain Jennings finest contributions to the songbook, this is Mostly Autumn at their most symphonic and at their most emotionally powerful, using the contrast between the fragile opening section with Heather Findlay singing lead, and the full band and swelling choir coming in later to great effect. It was written following the death of Iain Jennings’ mother; the spoken word section is taken from the eulogy at her funeral, and the choir that comes in at the end is the choir she had been part of. It’s an intensely moving piece of music even if you’re not aware of the back-story.

Bitterness Burnt

By the time of the fourth album, “Passengers”, the band had moved away from the folk-infused sound of the early albums in favour of a harder-edged melodic rock approach. This acoustic song giving prominence to Angela Gordon’s flute was one exception to that. It’s a song that’s been picked up again more recently with Heather and Angela’s acoustic duo Odin Dragonfly.

Carpe Diem

A marriage of Heather Findlay’s songwriting and Iain Jennings’ symphonic rock arrangements, this one was written in response to the 2004 boxing day tsunami. Like a lot of the band’s longer-form songs it’s a work of two halves, beginning as an emotive piano ballad, then building to a big climax of intertwining vocal and guitar lines with Heather using her voice as a lead instrument. Not just one of Heather’s best vocal performances, it also shows masterful use of harmonies and dynamics in the build up.

Fading Colours (Live)

The dramatic and apocalyptic number from “Heart Full of Sky” with a hint of Rainbow’s “Eyes of the World” in the overall structure opened the live set for several years. I’ve chosen the 2009 live version here rather than the original studio recording; the big vocal harmonies that add a lot of the impact weren’t part of the studio arrangement. By 2009 the band included Olivia Sparnenn and Anne-Marie Helder on backing vocals, both more than capable of fronting bands in the own right, and the live version shows what a band with that much vocal talent on stage can do.

The Second Hand

This dreamy number from 2008′s “Glass Shadows” is one of those songs Mostly Autumn have very seldom played live. Which is a shame, because it’s an overlooked gem in the songbook. Lyrics yet again evoke the landscapes of northern England, while the delicately understated acoustic guitar solo quotes the earlier “Mother Nature” before it’s carried away by a blast of electric chords.

Mother Nature (Live)

The lengthy closing number from 2001′s “The Last Bright Light” has always been one of the band’s signature songs, marking the high point of their early celtic-prog phrase. It builds gradually from a slow-burning start to one of those magical moments when the song switches gears and the full band come in. This is the live version, this time from Heather Findlay’s emotional farewell 2010 gig, which builds to a the big climax at the end rather than fading out during the preceding solo.

Questioning Eyes (Live)

It could be argued that this song, written by Olivia Sparnenn and Iain Jennings for the band Breathing Space, isn’t a Mostly Autumn number at all. But just eight days after that emotive farewell gig for Heather Findlay the band played their first show with Olivia Sparnenn singing lead, and this song was included in the set, and fitted perfectly. It’s been a standard in the setlist ever since. Like so many others in the Mostly Autumn songbook, it’s deeply personal song, an emotive ballad that builds to a hard rocking finale in the manner of so much of Mostly Autumn’s most memorable material.

Deep in Borrowdale

One of Mostly Autumn’s best out-and-out hard rockers, and yet another song singing the praises of the landscapes of Bryan Josh’s beloved Lake District. With a powerful driving riff and a strong rhythm section (It’s from one of two studio albums to feature Gavin Griffiths behind the drums) it’s become a live favourite for good reason. There’s still a nod to the band’s folky early days with the short acoustic break featuring a flute solo, before Olivia Sparnenn pulls out all the stops on vocals at the end.

Unquiet Tears

Though she had her moments on her first record is lead singer, the following “The Ghost Moon Orchestra” was the album where Olivia Sparnenn found her voice and started to take a bigger part in the songwriting. The opening number is good example of her growing influence on the band; a cinematic epic with more in common with Scandinavian symphonic metal than seventies British progressive rock. The moment where song changes gears, the guitars come in and Olivia turns the vocals up to eleven is jaw-dropping. With performances like that it’s not a surprise that she auditioned for Nightwish and ended up on the shortlist for the gig.

For those of you who do Spotify, here’s a playlist. Not all the early albums are on Spotify (most notably the three Cyclops ones are missing), so one or two of the versions aren’t the first choices. Most notably, The Night Sky is taken from the Pass The Clock compilation, which in turn is the 2002 Heroes Never Die version with session player Geoffrey Richardson playing the violin part.

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8 Responses to Mostly Autumn – Ten of the Best

  1. PaulE says:

    You can spot a “core fanbase” discussion by references to particular versions of songs …
    For The Night Sky it is always the Pass The Clock/Catch The Spirit version for me. For Shrinking Violet I tend to play the Leamington live version most.
    My 10:
    The Night Sky
    Shrinking Violet
    Passengers
    Answer The Question
    Storms Over Still Waters
    Half a World
    Paper Angels
    Wild Eyed Skies
    Tonight
    Box Of Tears

  2. Paul Grunill says:

    All great songs, but I’d want Shrinking Violet (Heather’s last show), The Last Climb, Fading Colours, Hold The Sun in there.

  3. PaulE says:

    I think I said on another thread that I could argue with myself on this subject. So, in that spirit, here is an alternative list of 10. Again covering a range of albums and trying not to pick too many of the obvious choices.
    Evergreen, Mother Nature, First Thought, Another Life, Heart Life, Silver Glass, Above The Blue, And When The War Is Over, Tennyson Mansion, The Library
    And I have still managed to miss out some great songs (including some on Tim’s list). I guess that is why I like the band so much, I could list 30 and still feel I wasn’t doing them justice.

  4. Tom B says:

    Good choices Tim. Going for songs which wouldn’t necessarily be the best ten, I would have Goodbye Alone, Simple Ways, Silver Glass, Heart Life, Caught in a Fold, Deep in Borrowdale, Answer the Question, Shrinking Violet, Wild Eyed Skies and Pieces of Love.

  5. Peter Ward says:

    Ten great songs there Tim but it is a mark of the depth of Mostly Autumn’s catalogue that none of them, with the possible exception of The Night Sky, would get near my list. I’m meant to be working so can’t work out what my list would be now but Yellow Time and Steal Away are two of their less prominent songs that I return to again and again.

  6. Alex says:

    I can’t disagree with much in that list, though I’m not a big fan of Deep in Borrowdale, and Questioning Eyes wouldn’t quite make my favourites. The Second Hand is an unexpected choice, but one of my favourites too. It’s one of Mostly Autumn’s most ‘commercial’ sounding songs to me – I could have imagined that one in the charts about 10 years ago. A Different Sky, from the same album, too.

    My choices:

    Shrinking Violet
    The Gap Is Too Wide
    The Spirit of Autumn Past (Part II)
    The Dark Before The Dawn
    The Night Sky (quite a recent addition to my favourites, maybe due to Anna Phoebe playing on it live)
    Porcupine Rain
    Answer the Question (I loved hearing Distant Train followed by this live)
    Ice
    Tearing at the Faerytale
    Spirits of Christmas Past (live)

    6-10 are quite interchangeable…I’m surprised I didn’t have room for anything from The Ghost Moon Orchestra, just so you know I’m not completely biased towards Heather on lead vocals.

    If there’s more than one version – it’s most likely the one from Catch the Spirit, perhaps because I’m most familiar with them. Originally I preferred the versions from The Last Bright Light, but ended up listening to Catch the Spirit more.

    How about favourite covers performed live? I love The Fairytale of New York, Ride On and Us and Them.

  7. Tim Hall says:

    @Alex

    Some interesting and not-at-all-obvious choices there! Shows the depth of their songbook.

  8. Ice is a sadly overlooked song. I think it’s probably my favourite on the album.