CULT CLASSIC: THE BATHERS-SUNPOWDER.
Cult Classic: The Bathers-Sunpowder.
With Chris Thompson at the helm, the The Bathers could’ve and should’ve, been one the biggest Scottish bands ever. Their music was articulate, beautiful, dramatic, ethereal, elegiac, emotive, languid, literate and melancholy. This is music for those that have loved, lost and survived to tell the tale. Sadly, The Bathers never scaled the headiest of heights and instead, it’s story is a case of what might have been.
The Bathers were formed in Glasgow, in 1985, by singer, songwriter and troubled troubadour Chris Thomson and released six albums between 1987 and 1999. Their fourth album was Sunpowder which is a reminder of The Bathers at the peak of their power.
Sadly, The Bathers never reached the heady heights their music deserved. As a result, the six albums they released between 1987s Unusual Places To Die and 1999s Pandemonia never reached the audience it deserved. For Chris Thomson, history was repeating itself.
The Bathers were formed in Glasgow in 1985. They formed after Chris Thomson’s previous group Friends Again split up. Initially, the group was a vehicle for singer-songwriter Chris Thomson. However, in 1987, The Bathers secured their first record deal with Go! Discs Records and released their debut album Unusual Places To Die.
Unusual Places To Die.
For their debut album Unusual Places To Die, Chris Thomson penned ten tracks. These tracks were recorded by The Bathers’ original lineup. This included bassist Sam Loup, drummer James Locke and Chris on guitar and keyboards. Joining The Bathers, were Michael Peden of The Chimes, Douglas Macintyre and James Grant of Love and Money. They played walk on parts on Unusual Places To Die, which was released later in 1987.
When Unusual Places To Die was released in 1987, it was to widespread critical acclaim. Chris Thompson’s songs seemed to strike a nerve with critics. They described the music as variously engaging, emotive and dramatic. One critic went as far to wonder whether Unusual Places To Die was the work of a genius? Despite this critical acclaim Unusual Places To Die wasn’t a commercial success. This was nothing to do with the music though.
Instead, Unusual Places To Die fell victim to the internal politics within the record company. As a result, sales of Unusual Places To Die were poor. Given the critical response to Unusual Places To Die, this was disappointing. So, it wasn’t a surprise when The Bathers switched labels for their sophomore album, Sweet Deceit.
After the Go Discs! internal problems sabotaged the release of Unusual Places To Die, The Bathers moved to Island Records, where the recorded Sweet Deceit.
Sweet Deceit was an epic album, featuring fifteen tracks. Chris wrote thirteen of the tracks, and cowrote the other two. He co-produced Sweet Deceit with Keith Mitchell, and the album was released in 1990.
Three years had passed since Unusual Places To Die was released. The Bathers were back, and according to critics, better than ever. Sweet Deceit was described as impressionistic, beautiful and spellbinding. One critic, quite rightly referred to the album as a mini masterpiece. However, The Bathers had been here before with Unusual Places To Die.
On Sweet Deceit’s release, lightning struck twice for The Bathers. Sales of Sweet Deceit were disappointing. Despite the critically acclaimed reviews, Sweet Deceit seemed to pass record buyers by. For The Bathers, this was a huge disappointment.
Especially when Island Records didn’t renew The Bathers’ contract. There would be another gap of three years before we heard from The Bathers again. However, Chris Thomson was still making music.
Following Sweet Deceit, Chris Thomson joined with two former members of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Stephen Irvine and Neil Clark, to create a Scottish supergroup, Bloomsday. They released just one album, Fortuny, which is now regarded as a classic Scottish album. Just like The Bathers two previous albums, Bloomsday’s debut album, Fortuny, was released to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, commercial success eluded Fortuny. However, a more fruitful period was round the corner for The Bathers.
After signing a record contract with a German record label Marina, the group released three albums in a four year period. In 1993, they released Lagoon Blues which was their Marina debut.
Just like Sweet Deceit, Lagoon Blues was another epic album penned by Chris Thompson. It featured sixteen songs, which were the perfect showcase for Chris Thomson’s vocal. Accompanied by what was essentially The Bathers and friends sixteen tracks were recorded at Palladium Studios, Edinburgh and mixed at Palladium Studios and Cava Studios, Glasgow. Once Lagoon Blues was completed, it was released in 1993.
On its release in 1993, critics remarked that Lagoon Blues was a more eclectic album. There were diversions into jazz-skiffle on Pissor, while the album opener Lagoon Blues showcased a string quartet. The strings would play an important part on Lagoon Blues, which was hailed as poetic, elegant, sumptuous and intense. The same critical acclaim accompanied Lagoon Blues, however, this time The Bathers’ music found a wider audience. It seemed after three albums, The Bathers’ star was in the ascendancy.
For The Bathers’ fourth album, and followup to Lagoon Blues, they returned with Sunpowder. It marked the debut of a new lineup of The Bathers.
Sunpowder marked The Bathers’ debut of drummer and percussionist Hazel Morrison, keyboardist Carlo Scattini and string players Ian White and Mark Wilson. These new additions would change The Bathers’ sound greatly. Many people refer to this as the classic lineup of The Bathers. This classic lineup, plus guest artist ex-Cocteau Twin, Liz Fraser, who features on four tracks, made its debut on Sunpowder.
For Sunpowder, Chris Thomson had written eleven new songs. They were recorded a at Palladium Studios, Edinburgh. Chris Thomson and Keith Mitchell produced Sunpowder, which was released in 1995.
When Sunpowder was released, it received the same critical acclaim as The Bathers’ three previous albums. Sunpowder was called sumptuous, sensual, dramatic and ethereal. Liz Fraser, an honorary Bather was the perfect foil to Chris Thomson forever the troubled, tortured troubadour. The result was, what was The Bathers most successful album, Sunpowder.
Danger In Love a song about falling in love again opens Sunpowder. The sound of thunder can be heard before a distant organ plays and creates a dramatic sound. Soon people speak and the organ sounds dark and moody before the mood changes and a piano plays softly, meandering gently, against a background of strings. When Chris Thomson sings his voice is full of emotion as he delivers the lyrics with feeling his voice full of sadness. Meanwhile , strings sweep in and out accompanying the piano and Liz Fraser’s ethereal backing vocals. Together they make this a beautiful and emotive track, and one that benefits from an almost flawless arrangement. Just like the pieces of a jigsaw everything falls into place
The Dutch Venus continues the downtempo feel and features a lush string arrangement which is accompanied by a piano. From the opening bars the mood is set and there’s an air of sadness is omnipresent. This is reinforced when Chris Thomson delivers the lyrics and sings of lost love. He remembers someone he loved, then lost and the love affair gone wrong. Like many of the group’s songs it’s set in Glasgow, he name-checks Kelvingrove in West End of the City and it’s as if the song is personal, as if it means something to him. Maybe it’s autobiographical? The understated arrangement is perfect for the song with just piano, strings and the vocal which is accompanied by Liz Fraser. Her voice is a perfect foil for Chris Thomson. Her’s is light and bright, his sad and full of hurt and and heartbreak on what’s one of the album’s highlights.
Angel On Ruskin has a hesitant slightly start, a guitar is gently strummed, drums play, and one wonders where the track is heading? When Chris Thomson sings, he gives the track direction and soon is joined by Liz Frazer whose backing vocals are crystalline, a thing of beauty. She almost steals the show on the track where the drums are more prominent. Meanwhile two of Scotland’s finest vocalists deliver a masterclass with Liz Fraser filling in the spaces left by Chris Thomson as he sings about being captivated by a woman’s beauty and being enthralled by her. Here, Thomson’s lyrics have the same quality and power as good poetry. They affect how we feel and we empathise with characters involved and live the drama on a track I’ll never tire of hearing.
Like many of the tracks on Sunpowder, the arrangement to Delft is understated and this adds to the dramatic affect of the music. As a piano plays, space is left allowing the music to breath and adding to the drama. When ChrisThomson delivers his vocal is slow and emotive as he leaves which also adds to the drama as violins and a piano play. It’s subdued and understated but highly effective and suits this song about loving someone from afar, but they’re just out of reach, and will never be part of your life. It’s a beautiful, heartwrenching song that many people will be able to relate to.
Weem Rock Muse starts with a guitar strumming and Chris Thomson singing. His voice sounds lighter and he sounds happier as if some of the worries have been removed from his shoulders. He’s accompanied by a Hammond organ playing in the background. However, as the track progresses his vocal gets stronger and he’s joined by a harmonica that meanders in and out the track. This adds to the soulfulness of of another love song set in Scotland. Just like all of Chris Thomson’s lyrics they have a strong narrative and are thoughtful and cerebral .
On Faithless, Chris Thomson’s voice is moody and tinged with sadness on this slow burner of a song. It has a long meandering and atmospheric introduction before he dons the familiar role of troubled troubadour. His delivery is heartfelt his vocal bathed in pathos. Towards the end of the track his vocal becomes a soliloquy and really drives home their sadness on another mini-masterpiece from The Bathers that tugs at your heartstrings.
For the first time on Sunpowder, the tempo increases on She’s Gone Forever. It’s a track that deceives, because it sounds an uptempo track, but the lyrics are about losing someone you love and a relationship breaking up. They’re some of Chris Thomson’s best lyrics which he delivers against a much fuller arrangement. It feature James Grant of Love and Money who plays acoustic guitar and sings backing vocals on this heartbreaking song about love lost.
The more uptempo style continues on Send Me Your Halo where an acoustic guitar plays before Chris Thomson’s vocal enters. He’s accompanied by strings playing gently, behind his tender vocal. It’s as if the lyrics bring back pleasant memories as he sings about falling hopelessly in love, being swept off your feet and a summer long love affair. This beautiful paean shows a different side to The Bathers, especially on Sunpowder.
Just a piano plays on Saskia setting the mood before the troubled troubadour takes centrestage and sadness seeps out his very pore on this song about love lost. He’s left with merely a memory, a memory he can only recreate in a song or that appears in his dreams. So powerful is soul-baring vocal that one can share and empathise with his pain and hurt.
Strings sweep at the start of The Night Is Young which has an almost classical feel and sound at the start. The understated string arrangement sets the tone for what follows. It’s a romantic song, one where the cadence of Chris Thomson’s voice helps get across, the beauty of the lyrics. Liz Fraser sings backing vocals, her voice angelic, soaring and falling and its ethereal quality is almost otherworldly. Their voices are like light and shade, but are a match made in heaven and combine perfectly to produce one of the most beautiful and heartfelt songs on Sunpowder.
The album ends with the Sunpowder, an instrumental track where a piano and violin play and immediately one feel melancholy. Welcome to The Bathers world, a world you’ve privileged to visit. It’s a lovely way to end this album, which is one of the best albums to be made by a Scottish band in the last forty years.
When The Bathers released Sunpowder it was a career-defining album and one that set the bar high for future albums. It was a mini-masterpiece full of beautiful soul-baring ballads that featured troubled troubadour Chris Thomson as he delivers a series of soul-baring vocals as he sings of love and love lost. This is something that most people will be able to release to and demonstrate his talent as a songwriter. His lyrics are like poetry set to music and the music on Sunpowder are timeless. It’s hard to believe twenty-five years have passed since the release of what’s one of the finest Scottish albums of the past fifty years. However, it was a team effort.
It would be unfair to credit Chris Thomson alone for making this such a special album. Credit must be given to the other members of what’s regarded as the classic lineup of The Bathers. The lineup was augmented by two special guests, James Grant and Liz Fraser who played a huge part in the sound and success of the album with her flawless ethereal backing vocals to several tracks.
For The Bathers, Sunpowder wasn’t just the finest albums of their four album career but their most successful. That was no surprise. The music was atmospheric, cerebral, cinematic, dramatic, literate and is tinged with hurt and heartbreak as well as pathos, regret and sadness. No wonder given the tales of love and love lost on Sunpowder. They’re brought to life by The Bathers and a series of soul-baring vocals from their very own troubled troubadour Chris Thomson. It’s a role that seems to come easy to him and one can only wonder if the lyrics are autobiographical? This is what makes Sunpowder such a powerful album. So does Chris Thomson’s worldweary, emotive vocals which are heartfelt and impassioned. He sounds as if it’s lived the lyrics he’s singing about and has lived them not just once, but several times over on Sunpowder the album that should have launched The Bathers.
After Sunpowder, The Bathers released Kelvingrove Baby to widespread critical acclaim in 1997. It was hailed as their finest hour until the release of Pandemonia in 1999. Sadly, The Bathers’ cerebral, literate and melodic brand of chamber pop failed to find the wider audience it deserved and they remained almost unknown apart from loyal band of discerning music lovers. That’s despite releasing albums of the quality of Sunpowder, a mini-masterpiece which when its was released in 1995 was a career-defining album from The Bathers who were always striving for perfection and very nearly achieved what to lesser bands seemed impossible and out of reach.
Cult Classic: The Bathers-Sunpowder.