Reinterpretation or regurgitation? I'm listening to Nine Black Alps' fourth record, and I'm thinking about the tightrope between the original and derived, the sincere and the ironic.
Wear your influences too heavily on your sleeves and they may just pull you down, devolve you into some knuckle-dragging reversal of the Ascent of Man. A cartoon Neanderthal, an insult to the thing you love, a parody, a copy. This has long been the risk a band like Nine Black Alps has taken, their sound so indebted to the early Nineties grunge explosion it makes Greece's deficit look I O U-worthy.
Yet, listening to Sirens, it's surprisingly still a tightrope worth walking – just about. For every moment when the hero worship seems tired, derivative or pointless there's a little flourish of brilliance, an exuberant cartwheel or introspective snapshot. It makes for a bittersweet blend.
Certainly the band's endearing way with a dead-eyed, sing-song vocal melody is intact and as sneering as ever on Sirens. Elastica-tinged earworm 'Don't Forget To Breathe' is a prime contender – wonderfully silly lyrics, muted screams and shameless Nirvana-isms all crowbarred into a short, sharp, gratifying loop.
Yet it's a formula that also wears thin elsewhere – 'My One And Only' comes across as hugely contrived, while 'Away From Me' is as weak and tasteless as watered-down festival beer, frontman Sam Forrest's vocals sounding whinier than ever.
It's even more frustrating when Nine Black Alps strike exhilarating, original paydirt. 'Phosphorescence's chiming guitars and persistent beat capitalise on the uneasy melancholy the band does so well, standing out as one of the best cuts on Sirens. It's difficult to pin down exactly, but I can't help but feel it's casting its line towards a more Mancunian tradition – either way, it demonstrates what marvels this lot are capable of when they push themselves.
It's the good old-fashioned knack with a pop hook that’s elevated the band in the past, as exemplified by their killer debut Everything Is. Sirens delivers several times in this respect – 'What You Wanted' is, indeed, the sort of catchy mashup of influences you want to hear, while the big, stonking drums on 'Hand Me Down' find a sweet spot.
Sonically, there is expansion – it's just not given enough oxygen to bloom. 'Waiting Room' deviates from the three minute blasts that characterise the record, interlinking acoustic guitars conjuring a dreamlike ticking clock effect before a gorgeous solo and a layer of feedback stir the brew.
It's these moments, where Nine Black Alps pull away from the grunge-by-numbers template, that feel the most honest, the least posed. But the album as a whole is still so in thrall to past masters that at times it almost feels like a museum exhibit, a TV reconstruction of a real-life drama. The taut, wintry feel of closer 'Another World' is locked in a perpetual arm wrestle with those watery Cobain drones, overfamiliar and unaided by a lumpen vocal. It still wins through in the end, just.
Nine Black Alps clearly do 'get' what is so satisfying about the particular well of alternative they drink from, even if it hasn't really been all that alternative for 20-plus years. The indulgent misery, the vitriol, the melding of garage rock, pop, punk, metal and psychedelia, the expansive promise of the sound – all of this was part of grunge's appeal, and in the reverb-drenched guitar playing of Forrest and David Jones there are glimmers of the same infinite possibility. Those moments cry out among a parade of mediocre stablemates on Sirens, hinting at the potential Nine Black Alps don't quite fulfil on this record.
6Nick Hagan's Score