Back in the late 1980s, The Blue Aeroplanes were arguably the closest thing Britain had to its own R.E.M., a musical kinship Michael Stipe acknowledged by making a guest appearance on one of their records and recruiting the Bristolians to support his own band on tour. Like the Athens, Georgia greats in their pre-world domination days, the Aeroplanes performed a highly literate brand of jangly indie pop, with group leader Gerard Langley half-singing, half-speaking his stream of consciousness lyrics in quintessential Stipe-like style.
Unfortunately, The Blue Aeroplanes never followed their American contemporaries into the mainstream. Despite briefly cracking the lower reaches of the UK album charts with 1990’s Swagger and 1991’s Beatsongs, probably the closest they ever got to radio-friendly, commercial records, a nation still in thrall to the sounds of Madchester had little interest in a freewheeling collective of art-rock musicians who once featured no less than 12 guitarists onstage at the same time. By the middle of the decade, The Aeroplanes had gone into indefinite hibernation.
Nearly 10 years passed before they re-emerged in 2005 with the well-received Altitude and now they’re back again with Anti-Gravity, which very much recalls their early ’90s heyday. In a band that’s vying with The Fall for the highest overall tally of band members during their history (current total is 42 and counting), the one constant presence has been Langley, who is joined here by fellow stalwarts Angelo Bruschini, Dave Chapman and Ian Kearey as well as several debutant Aeroplanes. The familiar dense layers of guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle are all in place, and Langley’s Lou Reed drawl is as defiantly verbose as ever.
Anti-Gravity opens with the excellent Sulphur, which boasts some coruscating guitar work and a stirring chorus that showcases the Aeroplanes at their most accessible. In contrast, the equally strong Oak Tree Day sees them at their most mellow and reflective, with Langley murmuring his oblique poetry accompanied by a soft acoustic strum and some mournful slide guitar. My Old Haunts (Laughing With A Mouth Full Of Blood) is the band joyously at the top of their game; guitars and harmonium weave intricate patterns as Langley observes wryly that “All my old friends aren’t so friendly/ all my old haunts are not haunted”.
With most of the best tracks appearing early on, the album does flag a little in the second half, and as is invariably the case with the Aeroplanes there are a few occasions when their ideas misfire and spill over into messy and pretentious self-indulgence. On Anti-Gravity the chief culprit is One World Passport, a largely tuneless, ham-fisted proclamation of mankind’s global homogeneity featuring toe-curlingly bad lyrics like “Are you French, African, German, Swiss or Austrian, Arabic, European… fuck language, look at those pictures.” But the group rally impressively on final track Cancer Song, a languid, sprawling epic that recalls earlier tour de forces like Beatsongs closer Sixth Continent.
For the most part, Anti-Gravity is an impressive outing from a unique group who have succeeded where many fail by coming back after along hiatus sounding just as good as at their supposed peak. As mercurial and sometimes frustrating as ever, they’ll almost certainly remain a cult act cherished by a devoted few, but long term converts to the Langley gospel will be delighted by what he and his cohorts have offered up here. It ranks among The Blue Aeroplanes’ best work, and it’s great to have them back again.