A.S - Exile (Album Review)

Monday, 08 April 2013 Written by David Ball
A.S - Exile (Album Review)

When you receive an album created by a duo, consisting of an Australian classically trained pianist who has conducted operas and ballets and an Algerian guitarist who cites influences as diverse as Kirk Hammett and Paco de Lucia, described in it’s press pack as a "labour of love over more than 2 years", you think it’s going to be complicated, difficult and quite likely a bit incoherent. Somehow what A.S. have managed to come up with is immediately likeable and easy to enjoy.

ImageTheir second full-length release, following 2010’s ‘Intimate Circles’ which was critically well received and successfully toured, ‘Exile’ was written with a wholly depressing backdrop. Nick McRoberts (the pianist) was going through a divorce while Idriss Halfaoui (the guitarist) had serious health issues. Rather than allow this to delay their sophomore release any further, the pair spent four months working on ‘Exile’ in a Paris loft citing it as "the only thing we had to hang on to". With drums and backing vocals added later (by Mass Hysteria’s Raphaël Mercier and Relay’s Juwenn respectively), the album was completed in early March and will be released on April 15th internationally.

‘Exile’ starts with its best tracks. Opener ‘Do What You Want’ is the catchiest and most radio friendly track on the entire record and bores its way into your head on your first listen. Slowly building up from a simple piano intro it showcases McRoberts vocal talents immediately as well as the expertly arranged relationship between guitar and piano with a gently shuffling drum beat adding depth. At less than 3 minutes it quickly slips away into title-track ‘Exile’ which packs more of a drum punch with McRoberts switching to a lower range, more melancholy vocal. Its delayed guitar riff carrying through the track further proving these guys know how to arrange catchy pop/rock songs.

Unfortunately the rest of the album doesn’t quite reach the heights of it’s opening, although that’s not to say there’s anything bad here. In truth there’s nothing I dislike about anything on ‘Exile’, my main issue is more that nowhere else do I feel really compelled to listen in a way that snatches your attention away from whatever else you’re doing.

Not to say there’s no variety here mind you. McRoberts skills as a pianist are shown throughout with the melancholic opening to ‘Time’ one of several high points. Equally, his vocal range is impressive switching from straining towards high notes, ala early Thom Yorke, as well as almost growling through some of the darker tracks. Their ability to combine piano and guitar seamlessly is both testament to their skills and lack of ego and the talents of the production team who have brought together a very polished record.

There’s a sadness in the lyricism throughout, although patched with flashes of hope, the opera background possibly playing a part in the way instruments are used to convey feeling, especially evident in the rise and fall of ‘Invisible Kiss’, which is my favourite track outside the opening pair and the darkness of ‘Probable Cause’ which has a bit of ‘Editors’ about it. ‘Pleasure And Pain’ has a deeply haunting feel, again the added string section really adding colour to the music behind Halfaoui’s delicately picked acoustic guitar and McRoberts stirring vocals.

Acoustic closing track ‘Reasonable Doubt’ is solid but a minute or so longer than necessary. It has a feeling of something which could be quite epic when performed live but it meanders a little too long without ever quite feeling like it gets to where it’s headed. As with ‘Fall In’ and ‘Why The Hell Not?’ there’s nothing wrong with it, they’re all decent songs but I like my music to make me feel something, as ‘Exile’ does in other places and these tracks don’t really do that for me.

This is a very solid follow-up from a band who possess unique talents. It’s full of little flashes of brilliance sprinkled throughout without ever quite all coming together to produce the really high end record I believe they most likely do have in them. Production qualities are excellent, lyrically it’s strong and the relationship between Halfaoui’s clever guitar tricks and McRoberts piano and vocals impresses. ‘Exile’ grows on you the more you listen to it and if you’re a fan of bands like The Walkmen, The National and early Radiohead you’ll definitely find things you like here, I can’t help thinking the next album might be the big one.

‘Exile’ by A.S. is released internationally on April 15th through Australian label Indelible Records. A.S. tour the UK, US, Germany and Australia during the next 18 months. Check back to Stereoboard for dates when they’re announced.

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