By 1985, when album number three came around, Gleaming Spires had pretty much gone through the full Sparks band cycle, and the brothers were gravitating back to a self-contained unit with occasional help from Mr. Kendrick. This freed up time to put back into Gleaming Spires for a change. The end of the line came with Posh Boy/PVC and the band self-financed their third album; licensing it to Tabb Records, a recent L.A. indie label. Other changes were behind the boards, where Stephen Hague had begun his big time production career taking him to the UK and Greg Penny, who was drafted to produce the earlier “Party EP” followed through with the full length album. Penny ran with the brief, never flinching at the musical hall of mirrors that the band were planning on dragging him into.
Gleaming Spires: Welcoming A New Ice Age DLX RM – US – CD 
- Welcoming A New Ice Age
- No One Coming Over
- Your Secret Room
- Bigger Than Life
- Things I Have Done To Our Love
- Blowing Up My Life
- What’s Coming Next
- Here Comes Mr. Funhog
- I Want More
- A Boy And A Girl
- Suspicious Minds
- It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding – Eleven Blue Men
- Crumbling – Eleven Blue Men
- That’s It, Forget It
Maybe it was the times, but “Mercy” sounded that w new optimism was being allowed a showing in the band’s music. Having had their heads turned by the likes of Big Country enlivening the Pop charts, the band were now striving for some of their “big music” mojo for their own. Singer Les Bohem also adopted a new singing style for the album with a new prominence for vibrato. Fortunately not to excess. This pointed to the possibility for a new dignity for the formerly beleaguered band, as we may hear below.
But they didn’t abandon all of their founding principles. The title tracks still dealt in anthemic sounds, but with a more typical Spires lyric playing against the music. They embraced a frozen doomsday scenario that could have been straight out of J.G. Ballard, or more keenly, a writer I’d not heard of before… Anna Kavan [“Ice”]. Meanwhile, it was apparent that guitarist Bob Haag was interested in pursuing a Roger McGuinn tone in his playing. And the end result burst with vitality in dramatic contrast to the lyrical evocations of a frozen hell.
America it’s 1985… do you know where your mid tempo ballads are? “Tearaway” did its best to answer that rhetorical question. The delicate song featured synth bass that got within a hair’s breadth of delivering a fretless vibe, coupled with a genuinely pretty melody, but lyrically, the band were up to their old tricks. The a cappella break at the start of the coda functioned as a genuine show stopper for Bohem’s dignified singing. It takes a special band to traffic in mid-tempo ballads that I can actively enjoy, but they are out there, and Gleaming Spires are such a band.
Bold, Byrds-like chords from Bob Haag grabbed my ears right from the start of “No One Coming Over.” Mr. Bohem broke down any false hopes remaining to prop up one’s persona in the face of an indifferent universe that had other ideas. He lyrically invoked Jagger, Bowie, and Ferry to deconstruct any childish fantasies of approval that the listener might still be clinging to. Which the descending cold ending made painfully clear.
As if to reassure us that they had not forgotten their first stab at Country Music in 1978, “Your Secret Room” managed to return to the genre with new vigor. The backing vocals, from The Passionettes, were hitting a bittersweet spot and the violin patch that Jimbo Goodwin relied on for a little Nashville ambience were straight out of what used to be the Country Music playbook. Which is why I was astonished when what I first imagined to be a melodica solo was actually bagpipes, as played by Campbell Naismith for the song’s fascinating coda. It was obvious that the band were not just paying obeisance to the Big Music trend. More than ever, their eclecticism carried them wherever the songs required.
“Bigger Than Life” was a snappy Motown pastiche complete with a real horn section to give it that bounce and for a rare outing, the lyrics were actually bursting with an optimism as arbitrary limitations we self impose were cast off for dynamic growth. At least they seemed to. In actuality, the song was based on a film I’ve not heard of, Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Then Life.”  In it mild mannered schoolteacher James Mason has a fatal disease possibly treatable by experimental cortisone therapy, which leave the man psychotic. Stuck in a double bind where the drug may make him insane, yet without it, he would surely die. So yes, this song was actually another one of the iron fists in a velvet glove that Gleaming Spires delivered like few others! The vibe of the song fit right into the zeitgeist around 1985 that saw The Undertones pursuing much the same sound on their album “The Sin Of Pride.”
More extroversion was provided by “The Things I Have Done To Our Love.” That one burst out of the starting block sounding for all the world like the target that The Smithereens would be aiming for their entire career, which had yet to happen in 1985. It swung like hell, with a thunderous, snarling menace of real Rock power. It really gave the embittered lyrics a perfect, contemptuous setting in which to glower.
The bass and organ led on the second Country Music song the album offered. But can you think of any Country song with a metaphor as violent and final as “Blowing Up My Life?” The sweetly arranged backing vocals added another layer of irony to it all.
The stylistic wheel spun yet again for the thrill-packed rocker “What’s Coming Next,” which reminded me of late period Jam. Every few bars it sounded like the EQ on Bohem’s vocals was tweaked to provide yet another perspective. It was packed with jarring blasts of horns that didn’t add soul, only menace. The lyrics here were a litany of incredulity at the ceaseless peril permeating everything, everywhere. In other words, it was a perfect song for our times! The abrupt cold ending was strong enough to cause whiplash.
Les Bohem admitted in the liner notes that “Unprotected” was his stab at writing a classic Roy Orbison ballad that can only be said to have thoroughly hit that bulls-eye perfectly. The high melodrama of the arrangement with the droning synth bass against the bass drum and finger snaps were certainly arresting. When the tattoos of snare drums finally arrived, it certainly added an elegiac finality to it all. It’s a crying shame that this one didn’t make the cut for “Mystery Girl” as it’s more than good enough for that disc.
None of the preceding songs… indeed, none of the band’s preceding career, could have prepared us for the last song on the last Gleaming Spires album. “Harm” certainly came by its title honestly. To begin with, it sported an unnerving varispeed backing vocal loop that was designed to provoke anxiety. Tribal drumming and Arabic synth lines didn’t coalesce as much as congeal into a semblance of a song. Then Les Bohem appeared, apparently singing the melody of an entirely unrelated song. It was a profound a disconnect as with Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery.” Then the chorus appeared out of nowhere and the song tightened into Pop for a few bars. Then the punishment continued with Jonathan Gold’s frayed nerve cellos to maximize our anxiety. Then the song bore down on the listener like a runaway train, with Kendrick’s drums adding further body blows to the already harsh music. Ending after 5:30 like an act of mercy.
The next salvo of songs couldn’t have been more different. The band got the commission to write and perform songs in the teensploitation movie “School Spirit” and the next five songs constitute its unreleased soundtrack. The band also had their own “Rollercoaster” moment as they performed three songs in the threadbare movie to pad its running time to the federally mandated 90 minutes for feature length. “Here Comes Mr. Funhog” could not have been more lightweight to follow the punishment of “Harm.” Sounding better was a revisit of Bates Motel’s “Dedication” [a bonus track on “Songs Of The Spires”] given a goose of higher energy in its second incarnation. It’s a little more powerful than Pop this time; crossing the line into Rock.
“I Want More” and “A Boy And A Girl” skirted close to the mundane, but then again, they were written for the “School Spirit” soundtrack. The project came with built in limitations due to the theme of a horny ghost spying on girls. When the brief was “Ghost” meets “Porkys” [okay so “Ghost” didn’t exist yet …work with me here] even the least of these songs constituted pearls before swine. The concluding cover of the Elvis evergreen “Suspicious Minds” was like any cover of that tune: a fun time with a great song.
It was at this point where Gleaming Spires’ tale ended badly when with their first coast-to-coast US tour booked and ready to go when guitarist Bob Haag melted down and went AWOL. Bring an abrupt end to the band. Kendrick and Bohem gave it the old college try with their friend, Paul Cutler, on guitar. The only result was a two song session appearing here with an astonishing take on Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” that was 5:33 of breakneck pacing and breakneck singing where we can actually hear Les’ blow out his voice on the ceaseless torrent of lyrics that Dylan packed into the song. And Les was determined to get the song 100% correct, unlike many others who take a stab at it.
The original song, “Crumbling” actually has something going that might have been sufficient embers for a new spark, but all of the participants were ready to move on. Les had his career as a screenwriter to occupy his time and David was working with the intriguing DEVO spinoff project The Visiting Kids [which I’ve needed for years…] and was able to parlay this role into a berth in DEVO taking up the position of the departed Alan Myers.
The last track here was an unreleased curio titled “That’s It, Forget It.” The synth-laden instrumental featured sound bites of tweens talking about their friends and an upcoming party. And therein the tale of Gleaning Spires thus endeth. Not with a bang, but tweens giggling among themselves.
The trajectory of Gleaming Spires as projected from these reissues showed a band that was unafraid to shy away from any painful truths. In fact, they tended to focus on them with a laser-like intensity as their métier. Yet they managed to emotionally buttress the often painful lyrical content with superb Pop/Rock tunes crackling with inventive production and arrangements. Starting with Power Pop, then pivoting to electronic New Wave on their debut album. They further diversified their sound on their second album which was the now full band firing on all cylinders. Only to broaden their stylistic reach to near the point of rupture on this, their third album. Juxtaposing Country Music next to anthemic Rock, and Motown Soul. And finally the almost psychotic “Harm” marking the point where it finally collapsed into a fascinating black hole of music.
I suppose that their determination to explore the song as a means to an end instead of as an end unto itself was perhaps the band’s fatal commercial flaw. Having such a wide stylistic sweep generally works against even the most capable of bands. And this band were nothing if not capable. Their three albums painted a portrait of the trajectory of the Post-Punk period where it mutated into New Wave [“Songs Of the Spires”] then becoming the more successful New Music of the sort that actually made it onto MTV and the airwaves for a time [“Walk On Well Lighted Streets”]. All of that late 70s energy had dissipated by the time of “Welcoming A New Ice Age” where the band began exploring as many older styles to see how they might be a flattering fit as they did with the latest musical threads.
I’m just happy their their somewhat obscure oeuvre has managed to make it to the silver disc even at this late stage of the game! Just as important, the mastering my Michael Graves at Osiris Studios has given this material a full bodied snap with plenty of dynamic range. Just enough compression has been applied to give it the subtle push needed to pop…without popping our eardrums. And the packaging of the discs is fit to burst with informative liner notes as written and overseen by Chaim O’Brian-Blumenthal. It’s the first time I’ve heard of him with his production of this project and I hope it’s not the last. Fans of high caliber DLX RMs need all the help they can get in this fallen world. The disc ships in 48 hours, but you may pre-order below by hitting that button.
Join us tomorrow for an interview with David Kendrick, who was there for the whole ride.