Thursday, August 26, 2021

The artists that time forgot: My Vitriol

Breaking through to the musical mainstream has never been easy. And even for the fortunate few who make it, there’s still no guarantee of a lasting legacy. In this series, we look at some of the acts who once made a big splash in the music scene, but ended up as a minor footnote in pop history.

When My Vitriol released ‘Finelines’, some 20 years ago, Music Week declared that this debut effort from the pioneers of ‘nu-gaze’ was “sure to be remembered as a classic in years to come.”

 

The band were breaking out of the UK club circuit and delighting audiences across Europe. Their songs were enjoying extensive airtime worldwide, and they were on their way to bagging themselves a lucrative US record deal. It was the quintessential pre-streaming musical ascendancy – dreamt of and sought after by every up-and-coming new act.

 

There was just one problem.

 

‘Nu-gaze’ was not a real movement, and My Vitriol were barely a band.

 

What followed was a decade of disruption, delays, false starts and unmet promises, and one of the longest hiatuses between a first and second album that the music world has ever seen.

 

Here’s what happened...

 

Making sense of the post-Britpop era

 

Five years ago, in an article charting the development of shoegaze, John Murray noted astutely that, “Music history hasn’t been too kind to the early ’00s, with many bands that generated excitement at the time now largely either pilloried or forgotten.”

 

Part of the reason for this is that British music was still in a period of transition following the decline and fall of Britpop. Sucking up disparate genres left and right, Britpop had been such a singular and all-consuming musical narrative that its collapse triggered a prolonged musical identity crisis. Blur stopped sounding like Blur, Pulp stopped sounding like Pulp, Suede lost their charm, The Verve split up altogether. Travis probably couldn’t believe their luck.

 

The ship was steadied in 2000 with some help from Irish veterans U2, intent on becoming the biggest band in the world once more, and from new arrivals Coldplay, still in their pleasant college-rock phase. But at the same time, big hitters like Oasis were misfiring, Radiohead were making people’s heads explode with Kid A, an indie backlash was underway, and filling the resultant musical void were testosterone-fuelled American nu-metal bandsslightly dull British singers, and, most worrying of all, Toploader.

 

Placed within this context, it’s easier to understand what My Vitriol were trying to do when they coined the faintly embarrassing term ‘nu-gaze’. Here was a band with an ambition to be something more than MOR, a band that genuinely thought they were on to something and that did not want to be held back by tired old labels.

 

And they had good reason to believe in themselves. As band origin stories go, My Vitriol’s stands apart for its brevity. Two talented young scientists, Som Wardner and Ravi Kesavaram, living opposite one another in their University College London halls of residence, began making music together back in 1998, Kesavaram on drums, Wardner singing and playing the other instruments. They quickly recorded a demo EP, ‘Delusions of Grandeur’, and gave it to BBC Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq at a gig. Lamacq played it on his radio show a few days later, and that was that. The music world took notice, and the demos started being played everywhere.

 

Practically overnight, they had made a musical breakthrough, blending dream-pop and shoegaze with harder 90s rock influences. This was the essence of ‘nu-gaze’; it was part My Bloody Valentine, part Smashing Pumpkins, and it made for a handy combination, given that the former had recently broken up and the latter were in the process of imploding.

 

Wardner and Kesavaram had just two issues preventing them from taking the project further: firstly, their pending university exams, and secondly, the lack of other band members.

 

On the road

 

A year later, with university commitments out of the way and guitarist Seth Taylor and bassist Carolyn Bannister seemingly plucked out of the ether to complete the line-up, the band began to secure their first gigs. They even found an obscure record label to put out a debut single, double A-side ‘Always Your Way’ and ‘Pieces’. It proved a masterstroke; within weeks, and despite having played just seven shows, the band were signed up to Infectious Records.

 

Over the course of 2000, My Vitriol ventured out on the road, put out a further three singles on Infectious, and recorded their debut album at Linford Manor, a 17th-century mansion turned recording studio. Momentum grew steadily. Having started the year touring with indie also-rans, by the summer, they had landed shows with A Perfect Circle and Deftones; by the autumn, they were opening for Mansun, a fading force in British music, but a force nevertheless.

 

The singles, ‘Losing Touch’, ‘Cemented Shoes’ and a re-recorded ‘Pieces’ barely grazed the UK charts, but each one performed better than the last, and excitement within the music press was building. Interestingly, the band chose to record several relatively obscure cover versions to accompany these singles as B-sides. It is perhaps evidence that Wardner and Kesavaram didn’t have that many original songs to choose from, but it also points to a genuine love of musical reinterpretation. Later in their career, My Vitriol would cover Madonna’s ‘Oh Father’, Elliott Smith’s ‘Bottle Up & Explode!’, Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ and even Katy Perry’s ‘Hot n Cold’ at a handful of live shows in 2009.

 

Between the lines

 

Finelines’ was released on 5 March 2001, preceded a few weeks earlier by a fourth single, ‘Always Your Way’, another re-recorded effort and now a blistering rock anthem. It gave the band their first top 40 chart success and a first appearance on Top of the Pops – the perfect build-up to album release day.

 

And it really is a spectacular debut album. Speaking in 2017, Wardner explained that, “With Finelines, I came at it with such a ‘we are going to create a holistic album’ approach, the whole thing was intended as a piece of art. The track ordering and every little detail was deliberate and thought out.” And it’s true that one of the most striking things about the album is its coherency: from the instrumental opener ‘Alpha Waves’ onwards, the tracks flow seamlessly into one another, carefully guiding the listener through each dreamy soundscape. The robust rock production – which owes a debt to albums such as Foo Fighters’ ‘The Colour and The Shape’ and Smashing Pumpkins’ gothic dalliance, ‘MACHINA/The Machines of God’ – has held up well. Two decades on, ‘Finelines’ still sounds fresh, vibrant and, above all, alive. The six singles on the album are all brilliant, but equal attention ought to be paid to songs such as the epic ‘Tongue Tied’ and melancholic closing track ‘Under The Wheels’. Admittedly, ‘Critic Oriented Rock’ wasn’t a particularly good joke at the time, and hasn’t aged well either, but that’s about the only misstep on what remains a very fine record indeed.

 

And yet, for all of the hype surrounding the band and the euphoric response to the early recordings, ‘Finelines’ was not universally adored. Q Magazine recognised its excellence; Drowned in Sound went barmy for it. But it also received a number of middling and often sniffy reviews, the best example being NME’s write-up. Despite giving ‘Finelines’ a three-star rating, the bulk of Mark Beaumont’s review was spent hurling abuse at the band.

 

What’s so instructive here is the open hostility towards indie music, a loathing that went well beyond the NME. At one point in the review, the admittedly tongue-in-cheek Beaumont even went so far as to admit that, “Look, you wanna be critic-orientated in 2001, you gotta be the f*****g Strokes.”

 

This was part of the problem for My Vitriol and another reason why Wardner was so keen to badge them as something new. It was a confusing time for the music industry in general. While The Strokes were being publicly heralded as the saviours of rock music, they were privately heralded as the hopeful saviours of a music industry that was beginning to fall apart. Peer-to-peer file sharing was already prevalent. Apple was on the verge of releasing the first iPod. Despite My Vitriol landing a US record deal with Epic worth a reported $400,000, changes were afoot that would forever alter the nature of the relationship between music labels and their non-A-list acts. Soon, the labels would no longer make significant investments in these artists or give them the time to find their feet.

 

It was a similarly confusing time for music critics. At the end of 2001, no one could quite agree on what the best music had been. Unsurprisingly, NME went for The Strokes. Others plumped for Ryan Adams’ uber-safe country-rock breakthrough ‘Gold’. Some felt that Bob Dylan’s ‘Love & Theft’ was a reassuringly safe choice, at least compared to, say, System of a Down’s ‘Toxicity’ (and indeed it was).

 

Despite its generally favourable reviews upon release, ‘Finelines’ was almost entirely overlooked in the end of year write-ups. Having given themselves a genre all of their own, My Vitriol now found themselves falling between the cracks, viewed as too noisy, or perhaps just too indie, by the mainstream media, and too melodic to be fully appreciated by the metal crowd. Even Drowned in Sound only placed it seventh in their list, something of a disappointment following a 10/10 review that concluded with the line, “If you only buy one album this year, make it Finelines.” This future classic, as predicted by Music Week, was already in danger of being forgotten.

 

The beginning of the wilderness

Momentum hadn’t exactly ground to a halt for My Vitriol. Two further singles had charted during the year, ‘Moodswings’ and ‘Grounded’, which reached number 29 in May 2001, their highest placement yet. There was a UK tour supporting another fading force of Britpop, Placebo, in October 2001, and a headline tour the following month. Initial US dates were scheduled for early 2002. 

 

But the touring was taking its toll. To some degree, this is because the band didn’t really know each other and yet were now living in each other’s pockets. Tensions were mounting behind the scenes that would ultimately force the band to announce a hiatus from touring in October 2002.

 

The hiatus lasted three years, during which time Wardner fought back against repeated rumours of the band’s demise by talking up their second record, revealing song titles and other tasty tidbits, and even going so far as to confirm its planned release with Gigwise. Yet, remarkably, the album they were supposedly recording has still not been released to this day.

 

It’s tough to say exactly what was going on within the band around this time. However, there was a clear discrepancy between Wardner’s public comments and the reality of the situation. New songs were eventually debuted in a one-off live appearance at London’s Islington Academy in January 2005, and a self-released live album followed, ‘Cast in Amber’. But, disappointingly for the fans, the new material was restricted to a six-minute album sampler bolted onto the end of the live record.

 

Was the sampler designed to appease the fanbase, or was it an effort to attract renewed label interest in order to get the record finished? Subsequent reports have suggested that only around seven recordings were ever completed for the second album.

 

Four of these tracks finally surfaced in 2007; a single called ‘This Time’ that was, somewhat inexplicably, released under a pseudonym, and an EP, ‘A Pyrhhic Victory’. Like the live album two years earlier, ‘A Pyrhhic Victory’ is perfectly serviceable, but it was rather slight for a core fanbase deprived of any new music for six years and passed by unnoticed in the wider music world. ‘This Time’ was too hard to find in the first place.

 

The band performed just four times in 2007, now with a new bassist after the departure of Bannister, and towards the end of the following year, there were signs that things might be back on track. A small tour of UK clubs led to a handful of European dates. More new material was debuted. But none of this activity led to anything more substantive. Wardner was a smooth PR operator, but even he was struggling to disguise the huge problems facing the band. A further, lengthy absence was around the corner.

 

Another year, another comeback

It’s fair to say that the fan base was as surprised as anyone when, in 2013, a PledgeMusic campaign was initiated to raise funds for the recording of a new My Vitriol album. Sadly, once again, things did not go smoothly. This Drowned in Sound retrospective tells the story of this problematic project in great detail. The short version is that, having taken the fundraisers’ contributions, the band missed their self-imposed deadline by more than two years. At one point, Wardner was hospitalised with vertigo caused by the stress of the experience. Very few fundraisers asked for their money back, but by the autumn of 2016, very few believed that the new album would ever appear.

 

They were wrong. In an unexpected twist to this most peculiar of musical narratives, ‘The Secret Sessions’ showed up on the final day of October 2016. Ten tracks, just the one cover version, and while no one knew quite how, where or when the songs had been assembled, it certainly looked to be a legitimate album. Judging from the song titles – ‘We’ve Lost Our Way’, ‘The Agonies The Ecstacies’, ‘Lord Knows How I’ve Tried’ – the band had faced their fair share of demons getting the thing finished.

 

15 years is a ridiculously long time to wait for an album, and there was no way ‘The Secret Sessions’ could ever live up to the hype and anticipation amongst fans. But while it doesn’t scale the heights of ‘Finelines’, it certainly reminds listeners of Wardner’s talent as a songwriter and arranger. ‘It’s So Damn Easy’ is fantastic. So is ‘London City Lights’. The ‘Nightcall’ cover is surprising and delightful. It’s a worthy follow-up, despite the wait.

 

In 2017 I went to see My Vitriol at the Scala in London, partly as a curious, lapsed fan, partly for a book I was writing. Here’s what I said at the time:

 

“We had no idea what to expect from such an enigmatic and puzzling group of musicians. What we got was an occasionally sparkling performance that also served to reemphasise the huge sense of missed potential and opportunity surrounding the band. The struggle to keep the band alive is ongoing – they presented themselves as a three-piece, bereft of a bassist and reliant on a backing track to fill in the missing instruments… One couldn’t help but sense the tremendous difficulty the band had faced even in making it back as far as the Scala, hardly the loftiest of auditoriums for a band once heralded as the new Foo Fighters.”

 

Mine was one of the more positive write-ups for the tour; others were less forgiving. But in a rare interview given to Soundsphere around the time, Som Wardner made it clear that the band’s revival was “for the people that emailed us over the last ten years saying ‘please come back’, it wasn’t meant to be a public exercise.”

 

A secret society

 

Since then, My Vitriol have done what they do best – playing a tiny handful of shows once a year before disappearing into the mist.

 

By recording a brilliant first record and then buggering up every subsequent career move, the band has managed to achieve an almost mythic status. They’re cherished and revered by a secret society of loyal fans, and it seems that the prolonged absences and obstinate refusal to do anything a normal band might do (like releasing music) only adds to the allure. They may be largely forgotten, but their career still feels strangely triumphant.

 

Tom Kirkham

www.tomkirkham.co.uk / @finestworktom

Image: Scarlett Page, via Isabelle


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