OK. So, before we get into this actual album, I first need to declare that Ride were one of the handful of defining bands in my late teenage musical development. At a time when I was finding bands of my own generation instead of just venerating the idols of old, I stole much from them in terms of how to use harmony, noise, invention and a denial of reliance on the blues in guitar music. Still a subscriber to their e-mail list, I have been watching hopefully over the last 12 months or so, as talk of reformation, then lists of confirmed venues and festivals have filtered through, hoping that they might make their way to Australia. With that hope still a pipe dream, seeing this particular album in the Cyclic Defrost review list got me quite excited. The fact that it is a collaboration with Robin Guthrie, one of the architects of one of the bands that most informed Ride – The Cocteau Twins – had me fairly excited.
So, in the face of that great weight of expectation, how do I think the album fares? As a general rule, the pair eschew the grit and noise that is most closely associated with their 25 year old incarnations. However, the dream-pop aspects which both their bands (particularly Cocteau Twins) inspired are brought to the fore in its place. Lush reverb is in effect. Washes of chorused guitar flow around. Every now and then, such as in the climax of ‘Dice’ or the heavily phased ‘Reason’, the distortion pedals are brought out of the cupboard. But it is a different album from what I might expect of an intersection of the two at their popular peaks. What glimpses of Ride’s past do come forward, are the mellower moments from later albums – Tarantula and, most distinctly, Carnival Of Light. Particularly on the acoustic moments – ‘Old Friend’, ’Sometime’ – the directions Ride were heading in before their disbandment are further developed. Of course, Gardiner has travelled the circuit as a solo acoustic performer in the years since 1995, so this is not at all unexpected. Some of Guthrie’s production tactics frame this overall mellowness with some of the moaning guitar washes one might expect. Universal Road’s more standout production moments come when the fairly insipid drum production is replaced with more electronic foundations, such as the opening of ‘Cry For Survival’, or when the tastefulness of every well placed guitar flicker is undercut by some distant lava fuzz guitar, such as in the closing ‘Blind’.
Perhaps it’s only because of the creators’ track records but, listening through, I can’t help but feel that specific distinctive elements are being sorely missed. Both Cocteau Twins and Ride, in their primes, thrived on the tension created between their noise and their beauty. Glorious melodies often gained power because they were buried under sheets of distortion and, especially in Ride’s case, rhythmic aggression. Universal Road takes the path of making just about every element nice. Contrast and, therefore, tension, are mostly removed. Meanwhile, the distinctiveness of vocal treatments of yore are also left behind. In 1991, harmonies would float joyously around each other, in the case of Cocteau Twins, generally wordlessly and, for both they and Ride, as another sonic layer. Universal Road throws Gardiner’s multitrack voice right to the foreground. Never the strongest singer, in Ride’s context this was made redundant as harmonies with Andy Bell played a major part, neither taking precedence over each other nor the surrounding sonic maelstroms. Here, however, he is left exposed, his americanised accent glaring slightly awkwardly on its pleasant enough own, but without the strength to really command the attention it has been given. It has the effect of ending up a dominant pleasant element above a wash of other pleasant elements.
If that all sounds like damning with faint praise then, I guess, so be it. Compared to the travesties that are often turned out by old heroes, Universal Road is certainly no disaster and makes for pleasant listening. And, of course, it is probably unfair to expect something that would send my head spinning in the same way both artists did to my teenage self. There’s also the small fact that both artists have been far from inactive in the last 20 years and so the album is a continuation of what they are up to in 2015, not a simple step directly from the early ‘90s. Ultimately, Universal Road is not going to be an album I turn to in preference over Guthrie’s or Gardiner’s classic work, but neither does it tarnish their reputations. Probably anticipating the reviews of old hacks like myself, the last word should probably go to a self-effacing Gardiner himself, as sung on ‘Yesterday’s News’ – “Now you’re yesterday’s news and all your luck is gone/Endless mouths, endless views, where did it all go wrong?/Now all is turning bad, how did it turn out like that?… Well, I wouldn’t have it any other way/So tired of the darkness in our lives today/Well, I wouldn’t have it any other way!”