Back in the late 1980s, The Blue Aeroplanes were arguably theclosest thing Britain had to its own R.E.M., a musical kinshipMichael Stipe acknowledged by making a guest appearance on one oftheir records and recruiting the Bristolians to support his own bandon tour. Like the Athens, Georgia greats in their pre-worlddomination days, the Aeroplanes performed a highly literate brand ofjangly indie pop, with group leader Gerard Langley half-singing,half-speaking his stream of consciousness lyrics in quintessentialStipe-like style.
Unfortunately, The Blue Aeroplanes never followed their Americancontemporaries into the mainstream. Despite briefly cracking the lowerreaches of the UK album charts with 1990’s Swagger and 1991’sBeatsongs, probably the closest they ever got to radio-friendly,commercial records, a nation still in thrall to the sounds ofMadchester had little interest in a freewheeling collective ofart-rock musicians who once featured no less than 12 guitarists onstage at the same time. By the middle of the decade, The Aeroplaneshad gone into indefinite hibernation.
Nearly 10 years passed before they re-emerged in 2005 with thewell-received Altitude and now they’re back again with Anti-Gravity,which very much recalls their early ’90s heyday. In a band that’svying with The Fall for the highest overall tally of bandmembers during their history (current total is 42 and counting), theone constant presence has been Langley, who is joined here by fellowstalwarts Angelo Bruschini, Dave Chapman and Ian Kearey as well asseveral debutant Aeroplanes. The familiar dense layers of guitar,mandolin, banjo and fiddle are all in place, and Langley’s LouReed drawl is as defiantly verbose as ever.
Anti-Gravity opens with the excellent Sulphur, which boasts somecoruscating guitar work and a stirring chorus that showcases theAeroplanes at their most accessible. In contrast, the equally strongOak Tree Day sees them at their most mellow and reflective, withLangley murmuring his oblique poetry accompanied by a soft acousticstrum and some mournful slide guitar. My Old Haunts (Laughing With AMouth Full Of Blood) is the band joyously at the top of their game;guitars and harmonium weave intricate patterns as Langley observeswryly that “all my old friends aren’t so friendly/all my old hauntsare not haunted”.
With most of the best tracks appearing early on, the album doesflag a little in the second half, and as is invariably the case withthe Aeroplanes there are a few occasions when their ideas misfire andspill over into messy and pretentious self-indulgence. On Anti-Gravitythe chief culprit is One World Passport, a largely tuneless,ham-fisted proclamation of mankind’s global homogeneity featuringtoe-curlingly bad lyrics like “are you French, African, German, Swissor Austrian, Arabic, European… fuck language, look at those pictures.” But the group rally impressively on final track Cancer Song, alanguid, sprawling epic that recalls earlier tour de forces likeBeatsongs closer Sixth Continent.
For the most part, Anti-Gravity is an impressive outing from aunique group who have succeeded where many fail by coming back after along hiatus sounding just as good as at their supposed peak. Asmercurial and sometimes frustrating as ever, they’ll almost certainlyremain a cult act cherished by a devoted few, but long term convertsto the Langley gospel will be delighted by what he and his cohortshave offered up here. It ranks among The Blue Aeroplanes’ best work,and it’s great to have them back again.