Sweetheart Grips is the sophomore release from French ensemble Nine Skies following on from 2017's Return Home (see review). Like that release, this reflects the diverse range of musical influences within the band by taking a multi-faceted range of experience as its theme. While Return Home reflected diverse experiences of city life through the eyes of a single observer, Sweetheart Grips concentrates on the contradictions of war personified in the experience of a soldier suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), exploring the dynamic between the essential brutality of warfare and the underlying humanity of those who are sent to fight. The title refers to the practice originating from the Second World War for soldiers to take family photos or pin-ups and attach them to their service weapon under clear plastic grips.
The core musicians are reinforced by some impressive guests. Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett, Frost*, Kino) gives another object lesson in dynamic precision as well as pure class to get things under way on Burn My Brain, and Clive Nolan (Pendragon, Arena), Riccardo Romano (RanestRane) and Dave Foster (Steve Rothery Band) Johnny Marter (here playing guitar rather than drums) and Drifting Sun's Pat Sanders all chip in with a turn. Lyrically there are also a few guest appearances, notably Lord Byron (Burn My Brain) and Edgar Allan Poe (Alone). With all this going on it should be no surprise that this is in places an uneven production, although no-one said it had to be easy. Nevertheless, the nine core members are more than capable of providing musical invention and there is much to admire in the delicate guitar work on display, the epic synthesiser and sinuous woodwind and brass. For me the instrumental, reflective Tyrant Or Nothing is an excellent showcase of what this group in capable of, forming a kind of gateway into the album's final section and leading beautifully into the wistful piano introduction to Soldiers Of Shame. Here Alienor Favier delivers her strongest vocal performance of the set, expressing the inner mental turmoil and mental scarring of the main character. Although that track ends with a sense of inner peace, Flowers Of Pain hints at a more disturbing aspect with its nursery rhyme like opening bars interspersed with flashback like howling guitars and frantic drums. The closing track, Isolation another instrumental brings to a close the strongest and most coherent section of the album and again showcases the intricate work of the musicians led by Bernard Hery's jazz inflected bass. As the title suggests, this is a downbeat, wistful ending, eschewing any sense of heroism and focussing on the struggle of the individual to adapt. An expressive and thoughtful endpiece which reflects the considered tone of the whole.
This is an album which is perhaps not immediately accessible, but which is dense, thoughtful and repays those with the time and energy to give it a close listen. The proceeds of this recording go to Ian's Chain, a charity which raises awareness of suicide prevention and helps families who have suffered through this terrible form of loss.
**** Andrew Cottrell
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