Fans of A Northern Chorus could be forgiven for thinking that the Hamilton-based band has a game of musical chairs in progress most of the time. The group is centred around the work of singer-guitarists Stu Livingstone and Pete Hall, but other members have tended to come and go. Cellist Alex McMaster joined the band after the completion of its last album, 2003's Spirit Flags, which featured contributions from now-departed collaborators Julie MacDonald (flute, vocals) and Sarah MacGregor (viola, violin). Bassist Owen Davies has been in the picture for quite a while, having replaced Mark Raymond after ANC released its first CD, 2001's Before We All Go to Pieces. I missed a few people in there, but you get the idea. The latest change for A Northern Chorus is the replacement of drummer Marshall Bureau, who played on the new Bitter Hands Resign, by Steve Hasselink.
"It's becoming routine," Hall says of the constant evolution of his band's lineup. "I think this one's going to stay intact. I think this is the best one so far, for sure."
Hall notes that Hasselink's energetic approach is already having an effect on the band's sound. "He made a few things a little more upbeat than on the recording," the guitarist explains in a telephone interview from Hamilton. "There are a couple of songs where he's added a faster beat that we didn't even hear before. And it's cool. It's really good, because that's something that we're not really used to doing. We're more the slow, brooding types."
Indeed, A Northern Chorus has built its reputation by constructing glacial epics, harmony-laden beauties that unfurl with a lazy ambience, only occasionally exploding forth into glorious sheets of distorted guitar. Bitter Hands Resign doesn't stray far from this winning formula, and songs such as "The Shepherd & the Chauffeur" and "Winterize" are worthy additions to the group's catalogue.
This time around, A Northern Chorus achieved its cavernous sound by recording in a converted barn just outside of Hamilton. The former farm building's high ceilings account for the sweet, natural reverb that coats everything, especially the drums.
"We didn't do a lot of EQ-ing with those at all," Hall reveals. "We just threw a whole bunch of microphones in front of the drum kit and played with the levels, so those weren't touched all that much. There's a lot of layering of the guitars. For every single guitar track, there's another guitar track behind that that's either the distorted one or the clean one, and then there's one with absolutely no effects, because we really wanted to make those crisp."
Equal attention was paid to the vocals. Livingstone and Hall are veteran shoegazers, having played together in the spaced-out Datura Dream Deferred. These days, however, neither is content to bury his work in the mix. "Becoming more experienced as songwriters and singers, you get a little more confident about how you're singing, and if you're really proud of what you've written, then you want that to be in the forefront," Hall says. "I think, lyrically, this is our best record to date, so it was definitely a conscious effort to have the vocals up front."
The band even included the lyrics in the CD's booklet this time, so especially keen fans can sing along when A Northern Chorus plays the Media Club on Sunday (May 1).