For its first two decades, 4AD was one of the most unique, distinctive UK indie record labels. There was an enigmatic aura around it, thanks in part to founder Ivo Watts Russell who signed a lot of great gothy artists, and who presented an instantly recognizable façade via the gorgeous artwork done by in-house designer Vaughan Oliver and his 23 Envelope / v23 team. The 4AD roster during its '80s/90s heyday was actually pretty varied, from punk to synthpop to ornate folk, and included Cocteau Twins, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, The Wolfgang Press, Modern English, Throwing Muses, Dead Can Dance, Lush, Ultra Vivid Scene, Throwing Muses, Clan of Xymox, Colourbox, and Ivo's own much-loved project with producer John Fryer, This Mortal Coil, to name a few. It all fit under Ivo's singular vision.

But the ultimate 4AD act, or at least the one that seems to pull from all corners of Ivo's taste, were Leeds band Pale Saints. Led by bassist and singer Ian Masters, Pale Saints were capable of the ethereal beauty of Cocteau Twins, the roar of Pixies, and the off-kilter quirk of Throwing Muses. Masters brought spine-tingling melodies, sung in an eerie fey falsetto, and fluid, driving basslines; Graeme Naysmith was one of the most original guitarists of the era; and drummer Chris Cooper brought both power and subtlety behind the kit. The band were lumped into the shoegaze scene -- they toured with Lush and Ride in the US -- but they were closer in spirit to early '80s post-punk groups like The Sound and Echo and The Bunnymen. Pale Saints also had a real love for L.A.'s Paisley Underground scene, particularly Opal whose song "Fell from the Sun" they covered on their fantastic debut album, The Comforts of Madness, which was 4AD's first album of the 1990s.

By halfway through 1990, with their debut out, Pale Saints began to feel limited by their trio lineup and recruited Meriel Barham on guitar and vocals. Meriel was a founding member of Lush who had left before their first EP. She joined just in time for 1990's Half-Life EP but really made her presence felt on 1991's Flesh Balloon EP that featured the gorgeous, dramatic "Hunted" and an especially dreamy cover of Nancy Sinatra's "Kinky Love" that featured Barham on lead vocals and netted the band a minor UK hit.

For their second album, Pale Saints stayed with Flesh Balloon producer Hugh Jones who had worked with Modern English, The Sound, and the Bunnymen, and whose atmospheric style was a good match for the band's sound. Jones was also a calming presence, smoothing out tensions between Masters -- whose taste leaned more to the esoteric -- and the rest of the band who enjoyed working on the somewhat more mainstream side of indie and were interested in, you know, selling some records.

That push and pull between Masters' outsider tendencies and Naysmith, Cooper and Barham's commercial interests is what makes In Ribbons so good. If some of the wild, ragged edges of Comforts of Madness have been smoothed off, the album makes up for it with scope and beauty. And there's still no shortage of weird.

The album, which was released on March 23, 1992, opens brilliantly with "Throwing Back the Apple," a track that immediately knocks you over with a tsunami of furiously strummed guitars and pounding drums before letting the tide recede to reveal shimmering guitars, heavenly Masters/Barham harmonies, and some ragged soloing by Naysmith that Frank Black and Joey Santiago might envy.

Pale Saints' command of dynamics -- their ability to build up layers of sound, knock them down, and put them together again in a slightly different and satisfying fashion -- is all over In Ribbons. That's best exemplified by "Hunted," reused from the Flesh Balloon EP, that showcases every member of the band's strengths. There's high drama woven into the song's ebb-and-flow structure with Cooper's nuanced, rat-a-tat drumming, the textured guitarwork of Naysmith and Barham, and Masters' melodic basslines and haunting vocals. With moments of elegance and paint-peeling noise, "Hunted" rivals "Sight of You" as Pale Saints' best song.

Not quite scaling those heights but coming very close are "Ordeal," the soaring "Babymaker" (re-recorded from Half-Life) and "Thousand Stars Burst Open" which closes the album with a little Roback worship. In Ribbons also features a number of surreal mood pieces, including the cello-laden "Shell," the tense, unsettling "Hair Shoes," and "Neverending Night" which is as pretty as its title.

Barham sings lead on three tracks, two of which -- "Thread of Light" and "Featherframe" -- are terrific and bring a new but complimentary sound to Pale Saints. "Thread of Light" does sound a lot like Barnham's old band but brings a level of refinement and dexterity that Lush rarely achieved. Also, no knock against Lush's Miki Berenyi or Emma Anderson, but Barham was the better singer, too.

The best song to feature Barham, though, is one that that wasn't on the original UK edition of In Ribbons but was wisely pulled up from the Throwing Back the Apple EP and onto the North American release of the album. It's a cover of Slapp Happy's 1972 song "Blue Flower," which Roback's post Opal band, Mazzy Star, had covered on their 1989 debut album, She Hangs Brightly. Where Mazzy Star's version had smoky late night cool, Pale Saints brought a crystalline beauty, both with the delicately arpeggiated guitars and Barham's clear voice. But when she sings "But I'm no fool, I know you're cool / I never really wanted your heart," the feedback swells and the band majestically hammer it out on two chords that could hypnotically go on forever. There is probably no changing the minds of Mazzy Star fans, but this is the best "Blue Flower."

Unfortunately, the rift within Pale Saints grew after the release of In Ribbons. Masters didn't really like to tour and a US label-mandated tour of the States with Ride, who had released their second album Going Blank Again just a few weeks before In Ribbons, proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Masters quit in 1993 and formed Spoonfed Hybrid and then ESP Summer with His Name is Alive's Warren Defever, two projects that allowed him to spiral into his own navel. Pale Saints, meanwhile, carried on without him, recruiting Heart Throbs' Colleen Brown on bass and making one more record -- 1994's Slow Buildings -- which was fine but lacked that creative spark and the great songs of the first two albums.

In 2020, Beggars Arkive gave The Comforts of Madness a 30th anniversary reissue. In Ribbons, which has been out of print in physical formats since its initial release, deserves the same treatment.

 

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