Bystanders

After a swift rise and fall in the 1980s, Belfast's original indie act St. Vitus Dance return with a third album worth listening to

Back in the 1980s, the musical tag ‘indie’ was not just a handy marketing term hung on the latest up-and-coming guitar band signed to a big label in need of a little credibility to go with their skinny jeans and rebel attitude.

30 years ago the bands who flew the ‘indie’ flag were signed to independent labels, had their own charts in the NME, and – with a few exceptions – went largely unnoticed by the greater record buying public.

Unfortunately for them, Belfast band St. Vitus Dance were not one of those exceptions. Formed in the first half of the decade, and fronted by singer and guitarist Noel Burke, the band signed with Liverpool indie label Probe Plus and released their 60s influenced debut album Love Me, Love My Dogma in 1987.

Encouraged by the critical plaudits heaped on the album, the band made the move to Liverpool in an attempt to spread their live fan base and to promote the album. Just over a year later they had disbanded, homesickness and a failure to find enough paying gigs putting an end to their dreams.

Some of the band stayed in Liverpool while others returned to Belfast. Like so many credible acts over the years, St. Vitus Dance became little more than a footnote in the rich tapestry of British pop music

Burke would go on to front Echo and the Bunnymen after singer Ian McCullough left the band. He recorded and toured 1990’s Reverberation album with them, but the impossible demands of replacing such a successful band’s front man led to the band’s dissolution in 1993.

Burke settled down in Liverpool, married, had children and became a teacher. St. Vitus Dance kept in touch over the years. There was talk of a reunion, but for one reason or another nothing came of it.

Then, in 2005, band members were approached by the organisers of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival with a view to playing a one off show. This unlikely interest encouraged the band not only to reform, but also to write and record of a new album, Glypoteque, more than 20 years after their first.

A less tardy four years later comes album number three, Bystanders, and the St. Vitus Dance have delivered a record of assured, intelligent guitar pop, which tips its hat to the past whilst maintaining a vitality and excitement generally missing in today’s ‘indie’ music.

Opener 'Gospel Oak' is pure psych-pop, sharing the same DNA as The Byrds and early REM. A sitar-influenced guitar solo also adds a dash of eastern exoticism.

This 60s influence runs throughout the record like a seam, joining together the chamber folk leanings of 'Great Divide' with the earnest protest of 'Lot to Learn', its lyrical digs at the present coalition government ensuring the record doesn’t fall into the trap of mere musical nostalgia.

The Paisley Underground scene of the 1980s is another benchmark on the record. The ghosts of The Long Ryders hitch a ride to the jingle jangle of 'Prester John', whilst Americana country forms the musical template of album highlight 'St. John’s Garden', its lonesome harmonica solo a fitting accompaniment to a song about homelessness.

The musicianship on the record is exemplary, with particular plaudits due to Haydn Boyle’s keyboard work, particularly on the woozy, circus organ of 'Circumstances'.

The Northern Ireland musical landscape is in rude health at the moment, with extremely talented young musicians making ears twitch in such august publications as The New York Times. Here’s hoping that someone lends an ear to the seasoned youngsters who make up St. Vitus Dance. They’re only on their third album, after all.

Bystanders is available now on the Probe Plus Records.

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