Alpha – The ones who got away

Everyone who loves music, all those who are used to obsessively searching out songs that make them feel special, make them feel connected, make them feel exalted, they all know the joy of finding that special record to bring a smile to the lips, a shiver to the spine or a tear to the eye. Those people will have always have that one band that baffle them, when the lack of recognition for the performers prompts the question, “why aren’t these people stars?” That band for me is Alpha and their sumptuous debut album “Come From Heaven” in particular.

Back in 1997, Bristol was still getting used to having the ears of the world being tuned to its frequencies. After decades of being overlooked, suddenly our local musicians were being poked and prodded by curious listeners from further east than Eastville, North than Northville, South than Southville and West than…well what happened to Westville? It was in the autumn of that year that the bands first album “Come From Heaven” was released on Melankolic, the label set up by Massive Attack.

It was, and remains, a shimmering, sumptuous beauty. Languidly stretching and easing its way into your brain, the perfect record for those long dark evenings as the temperature starts to drop. Cinematic in scope, nothing is rushed and to fully enjoy its dark pleasures the listener needs to set aside some time and fully engage. Founder members Corin Dingley and Andy Jenks weave a wonderful mesh of downtempo melodies with subtle samples from the likes of Bacharach, Legrand, Alpert and even Sylvia Plath.

Then there are the vocal trio and what a contribution they make. Wendy Stubbs, deeply world weary, knowing and resigned to the woes of the world. Martin Barnard, one moment, barely audible as he edges around the most fragile of melodies, then soaring and passionate as chases the surge of the glorious string section. Then along comes Helen White, more prone to being staccato in style but just as effecting and engaging.

The songs appear to be assembled rather than written, veering from supper club jazz to sad French pop with a nod to base heavy club culture along the way. Themes appear and disappear at will, yet all the while Dingley and Jenks manage to keep things coherent as the songs ebb and flow. And yet somehow the British public let this wonderful record slip from its collective grasp. As I understand it, our friends in France embraced Alpha rather more fondly then us, it was nice to hear that someone did.

The following year saw the release of “Pepper” a collection of remixes and B sides which highlighted the dance floor aspect of the band and was allegedly Madonna’s favourite record of 1998. Once again though the record did not trouble the compilers of the charts.

2001 saw the release of “The impossible Thrill”, featuring the same line-up as the debut album, although with far fewer samples. This was also the only time that I managed to see them playing live, as the Ashton Court Festival took place in the unusual surroundings of Hengrove Park because of the Foot and Mouth disease putting the Ashton Court Estate in quarantine. It was a poorly attended festival and although the band was warmly received by those that saw them, it wasn’t the triumphant Bristol gig that Alpha deserved. This was to be their last release on the soon to be disbanded Melankolic and although the band continued to release records on their own “don’t Touch” label, it became trickier to find them in the shops. I remember the excitement of picking up two of their later albums “Stargazing” and “Lost in a garden of clouds” whilst in a Paris record shop around a decade ago and rightly feeling very pleased with myself.

Over the years some members have been lost along the way, which is to be expected. They have worked with the likes of Horace Andy, Jarvis Cocker and Kelvin Swaybe of The Heavy and even the mercurial Prince has stated that he is a fan. The Alpha HQ has long since moved from Bristol to France, so they have slipped somewhat from the musical radar in the city that spawned them. The good news though is that this December will see the return of Alpha to Bristol. They are playing at The Lantern within The Colston Hall on December 11th and hopefully it will be chance to pick up a copy of their new record “Loving Nobody” which features a host of guest vocalists. It will also be a long overdue chance to spend some time in the company of musical idea that has produced some glorious music over the years.