Opening with a ten second homage to Estonian composer Arvo Part, it's immediately apparent that A Sunny Day in Glasgow's new album, Ashes Grammar, is going to be a much more visceral outing than their 2007 album debut, Scribble Mural Comic Journal. It takes a few minutes for the record to even begin to reveal itself, as a swarm of 1950s acapella ("Secrets at the prom") gives way to resonant drones, room noise, and sub bass ("Slaughter killing carnage"). It's here that "Failure" unexpectedly kicks in with a tribal stomp and a fluttering guitar acting as a pair of wings, lifting the circular chants of the song's melody off the ground. It's all at once joyous, insecure, and blissed-out-and sounds nothing like we've heard from A Sunny Day in Glasgow before.
Bandleader/songwriter Ben Daniels wanted to approach the making of Ashes Grammar differently than Scribble Mural Comic Journal-a one-microphone, bedroom-recorded album that seemed to catch the independent music world by surprise, with music tastemakers such as Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound and many blogs all giving high praise to the Philadelphia-based group's re-imagination of dream pop. Riding high after a successful 2008 European tour, Ben wanted to leave the bedroom and try recording in a, well, bigger room. He found a dance studio in rural New Jersey that would let the band take over the huge space on the weekends. Not having to worry about neighbors and landlords, it was the perfect place for Ben and drummer/recording engineer Josh Meakim to experiment with sounds. Everything, including synths, samples and drum machines, went out into the room first through a borrowed PA system and any amps they could find. The two spent countless hours moving microphones around, playing instruments and noises out into the room and re-recording those sounds a la Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room."
While the sessions got off to a good start, they would unexpectedly lead into a tumultuous couple of months for A Sunny Day in Glasgow - literally transformative. On the day he was to begin laying down his parts, bassist Brice Hickey fell while loading his equipment into his car, breaking several bones in his left leg. Though a blow to morale, Ben would be able to handle the bass lines on the album, but this would also affect the involvement of ASDIG vocalist Robin Daniels - Ben's sister and Brice's girlfriend - who would now have to tend to her bedridden boyfriend for the next several months, making it impossible for her to spend any significant time in the studio. And with Ben and Robin's other sister, ASDIG vocalist Lauren, attending grad school in Colorado, the group would essentially be without the two singers so integral to A Sunny Day's celestial melodies. Band newcomer Annie Fredrickson, a classically trained cellist and pianist, would find herself stepping into another role as singer, along with Josh who - off the record - has an incredible vocal range, just tones short of a castrati. Ben, Josh and Annie would spend many late nights in New Jersey together developing a new melodic strategy and generally opening things up to anyone's ideas. Annie's friend, Beverly Diser (nom de guerre, Beverly Science) would come by from time to time to add vocal parts here and there; and one time touring bassist/in-it-for-life-member Mich White also contributed ideas from his home in Austin, TX.
In hindsight, those obstacles, coupled with A Sunny Day in Glasgow's creative determination, reshaped the band in ways they never could have imagined. The resulting Ashes Grammar is far more nuanced than Scribble, but there's still a cellular logic at play throughout. The brief, shimmering loop that is "Lights" turns out to be the very pulse behind the sun-kissed, ambient pop of "Passionate introverts," a feel-good song perfectly suited to accompany daydreams or dancing alone in your bedroom. In contrast, "Shy" is about as close to rocking-out as ASDIG have ever gotten, as layers of Annie's voice float over a steady beat and sparkles of synths, samples and noise. Still, even at their most accessible, there's an indescribable otherworldliness flowing through the band's music, one that is fully revealed during "Blood White." Like Lucier's aforementioned experimental touchstone, you can practically hear the shape of the room resonating in the washes of voices and samples that had been amplified, recorded, replayed and recorded again and again, resulting in lots of undulating tones and deep sub-aquatic bass before the track slowly drifts into the kosmische, carried by a light, Ashra/Gottsching-esque bed of bubbling electronics and guitar.
From the addition of new vocalists and strings, to a completely different recording environment and method to the proceeding, there are certainly many differences between the band's first album and Ashes Grammar, but with Ben continuing his role as the principal songwriter, there's no doubt that this is any other group than A Sunny Day in Glasgow. And once again, dream pop has been re-imagined.