This is a review of "Sketches" recorded by Steer. The review was written by Rob Paul Chapman in 2004.
This is essentially a standard 4-track demo, albeit a topsy turvey one. Two of the best tracks from the band’s debut album A Song For Gill and 2 sneak previews from the forthcoming album Loved And Lost due out in the very near future.
Opinion has been divided on this band’s live performances. Partly due to the band themselves (no gig seems to share the same line-up as the last and therefore some performances have been better than others) and partly, one suspects, because this probably not the most vogue of musical styles at the present time.
Steer play what would probably be considered slightly proggy, slightly jazzy, spaced-out pop with brothers Warren and Craig Steer sharing a trademark duel vocal approach which occasionally threatens to scale into octaves audible only to the canine community.
When they are good they are outstanding – frighteningly competent songwriters, masters of their instruments and with a creative instinct that is easily capable of transcending the boundaries of what most bands can spend their entire lives trying to achieve in just a simple chord change or layered harmony.
When they are less good though, there can be a tendency to drift into the territory of the bland. It’s all intelligent and worthy pop music, but there is a fine line between clever and clever-clever, something which trained musicians can often forget. Inverted Mixalodian modes may be great for metaphorical beard scratching internet music reviewers – ahem – but Joe Public tends to go for tunes in the large majority of cases.
Fortunately though, these four tracks are drawn from the former part of the Steer cannon and thus make this a very desirable disc to own. They show off the full range of what Steer do well with each track highlighting a particular strength – the poppy, the beautiful, the epically intense and the smooth.
The demo kicks of with Ambition. That’s the title by the way, although that could quite easily be the statement of intent for the whole recording. It is light and accessible and yet still sounds unique. The laid back grooves and funky drum patterns don’t really sound of this time and yet they don’t sound dated either. It brings to mind a kind a kind of 70s West Coast feel and yet sounds nothing like any of the bands of that period. Perhaps it’s a sunshine thing.
There are some lovely harmonic moments and a real breezy feel with some high-octave vocal gymnastics that make Justin Hawkins sound like Barry White. All in all a very good pop song.
Wish You Were Here (no, not that Wish You Were Here) is a fine, fine song. A exquisitely crafted gem of melancholy beauty. Of all of the song writing crafts, ballad writing must rate amongst the hardest, simply because with a much sparser soundscape to play with, coming up with something original is so difficult. No such problems here though.
This drifts effortlessly along with a tune so glorious that it almost leaves you dumbfounded. It is fragile and delicate, but its attraction is magnetic and draws you in before it blossoms into a dazzling peak before subsiding again for a while, kind of like the musical representation of a rare orchid.
However, nothing can prepare for the next track and the first sniff of material from the new album. Innocents is a monster of gargantuan proportions. If this track was a film it would be Apocalypse Now – Dark, dense, intense, and brilliant, so vastly sprawling and ambitious that it could easily ruin its creators if not pitched absolutely perfectly. Somehow, it manages it.
A raw and scratchy guitar line leads straight into the opening line “Out of our hands this time”. They could almost be describing the song itself. It continues menacingly along this dark and seedy path before exploding into a kaleidoscope of Technicolor. Multi-layered vocals fill the sound like a choral wall of noise whilst all number of unusual sounds and instruments fire randomly off in the background. The use of instruments is perfectly judged (you’ll be hard pressed to find a more effective use of a glockenspiel anywhere) and the production is exceptional. Awesome stuff.
The fourth track, Four For A Girl sticks a bit closer to the blueprint of the debut album. It’s a light and airy track based around a jazz chord progression. Its perfectly pleasant, but suffers in comparison tot the previous three tracks. Still, nice jazz guitar solo though.
It’ll be interesting to see which direction the new album takes, but for a highlights package of what the band can do you couldn’t want for much better than this offering. Expect finding it to be about as easy as tracking down the A-Team (the brothers are hardly prolific self-publicists), but if you can find it you should grab it, hold it, cherish it and most importantly play it. Lots.
It may not win you many friends in the Image Police, but it’s a gloriously guilty pleasure. Try it, you might like it.