The Scottish Enlightenment. Such a good band name it’s a surprise it hasn’t been claimed before. It poignantly captures that type of Scottish band who proudly celebrate their national identity and achievements but also undercuts it with a wry ironic suggestion of failed ambition, introspection and self-doubt. Best back away from the Scottish politics now.
The duality of the name is also found in the music – elegant, unhurried post-rock that possesses an anthemic swirl and grace but also a morbid Caledonian miserablism. Most songs fit the same template: 5 to 6 minutes of unfolding restraint gradually building in intensity. Opening instrumental ‘Gal Gal’ starts with water-dripping-from-stalactites chimes before opening out with slow, methodical drums and trembling guitars to build to a majestic glacial peak. ‘Little Sleep’ adds cosy/spooky Angelo Badalamenti atmospherics in the echoing and twanging guitar and bass to create the gentlest rallying call “to man the barricades” you’re likely to hear. Songs like ‘Necromancer’ or ‘The First Will Be Last’ create a brief sense of menace with their doom-laden guitars but deftly lighten it with softly sung melodies of that offer gentle reflection and reassurance despite the often gloomy and morbid content.
Songs are filled with references to churches, tombs, angels, the spirit. Faith or more importantly doubt (St Thomas being the first Doubting Thomas) is an important constant. Some songs like ‘List Right’ echo this morbidity closely in tone and theme; elsewhere the swelling poise and beauty of the six minute ‘The Soft Place’ complete with chiming glockenspiel and trumpet acts as a gorgeous if slow-moving balm to lighten the mood. The short-but-sweet ‘Pascal’ is the nearest the record comes to an upbeat pop tune. It of course contains the line “I’ve seen your tomb before”.
The four piece – David and Angus Moyes, David Morrison, Michael Alexander – have been releasing singles and EPs since 2006 – first on Dunfermline’s Moojuice now on Armellodie Records. “St Thomas” is their first full-length album. Its patient assurance speaks of a band who have spent the intervening years refining their songs and fashioning a clear identity rather than rushing to get a debut out. There may be some slight diminishing returns over 11 tracks but by the same token you do not often hear a band’s debut album where you can pick any song and instantly say “that’s a Scottish Enlightenment song”. Lively or frivolous “St Thomas” isn’t – it comes as no surprise to discover chief songwriter David Moyes spent six years at university studying philosophy. But allow yourself to be drawn in on repeated listens and there’s real comfort even beauty in misery. Isn’t this the lesson the saints teach us?