Stratford, East London is normally the sort of place one would expect to breed edgy grime artists or an achingly hip dubstep producer rather than earnest folk-rock bands. Yet it’s the home of Westfield and the Olympic stadium which witnessed the birth of Dry The River, one of an increasing number of rustic, real ale flavoured groups of bearded young men to emerge incongruously from our urban heartlands in the wake of Mumford And Sons. They even brewed their own limited edition beer – called Mammoth, if anyone’s interested.
To be fair to Dry The River, judging by their debut album, 2012’s Shallow Bed, to dismiss them as mere Mumford clones would be well wide of the mark. Although it also occasionally veered too close to irritating bombast, the yearning melodies of songs like History Book and Shield Your Eyes displayed greater subtleties, especially when the textures of classically trained violinist William Harvey were given space to breathe. A download only acoustic version of the album followed later that year, which seemed to consolidate their strengths further.
Sadly, those hoping that Dry The River’s second album will build on the promise of Shallow Bed to deliver something truly memorable will probably be disappointed. The central factor behind the dampish squib that is Alarms In The Heart would appear to be the untimely departure of Harvey in February of this year to ‘pursue other projects’. One cannot help but wonder if that age-old issue of ‘musical differences’ was behind his exit, as the most frustrating thing about this second effort is the decision from Dry The River to start throwing the kitchen sink around rather than further develop the more intricate elements of their sound that briefly threatened to make them special.
The end result is a confident, swaggering album that ultimately lacks finesse. Front man Peter Liddle possesses a high, tremulous voice of power and range, which on the better songs here, like the elegant Gethsemane, can be truly transcendental. Yet this track in some way epitomises what’s wrong with Alarms In The Heart. After building gracefully for two minutes, the fragility is suddenly overwhelmed by a cacophony of guitar and thumping drums which send Dry The River hurtling bewilderingly into stadium rock territory. The folk part of the deal seems to have been unceremoniously dumped.
No longer sounding a bit like Mumford And Sons will no doubt be deemed as a positive by many, but this new, pumped up version of Dry The River is hard to love. They are now veering into the same sonic territory as perpetually overblown U.S bands like Okkervil River and Shearwater, with every song ramped up to epic proportions when a little more restraint would give so much more room for them to breathe. Tracks like Roman Candle, Vessel and It Was Love That Laid Us Low have definite potential, but are greatly diminished under the weight of some brash production from Charlie Hugall, whose mainstream credentials (Ed Sheeran, Florence And The Machine) probably have a lot to do with Dry The River’s change in direction. Others, such as the limp Med School, are simply forgettable.
It’s only on the closing, 11-minute Hope Diamond that they finally get the balance right, delivering a genuine slow burner of poise and beauty where everything before seemed rushed. But it’s not enough to change the overall impression that Alarms In The Heart is overall an opportunity missed.