Napa Asylum is the latest release from lo-fi rockers Sic Alps. Created by Mike Donovan from The Ropers and Adam Stonehouse of The Hospitals in 2004, their press release suggests that since then, they’ve “…been sic-sagging towards resembled group-hood”. After Stonehouse’s departure, and with Matt Hartman from Henry’s Dress and Noel Von Harmonson from Comets on Fire also drafted in, their mission statement seems to be “pedal to the delay metal”.
The 22 tracks of Napa Asylum ebb and flow like a tide, breaking gently in waves of fuzz, melody and delayed discord. Such are the nature of the songs – flitting in and out before you’ve even necessarily had a chance to begin to digest them – there’s no surprise in saying that the album does initially require some work to get in to. However, after a few listens, you’re rewarded with the subtle flashes of colour that would have been missed otherwise.Mike Donovan’s voice is perhaps what sets Sic Alps apart from other similar bands, in that he sounds at once fragile yet defiant; his voice often provides the main structural point of a song, yet he doesn’t revel in the spotlight, and melodies disappear as soon as they are seemingly stumbled upon.
With 22 tracks, some can’t help but feel a little rehashed, but there are definite highlights; ‘Cement Surfboard’ sounds like a menacing summer anthem, while ‘My My Lai’ (named after a massacre of Vietnamese troops by American soldiers in 1968) drips with dread, with unsettling percussion and haunting vocals providing an uncomfortable listen. ‘The First White Man to Touch California Soil’ is a straight-up rock track, and perhaps the most ‘traditional’ song on the whole album, with a fantastic guitar riff and vocals that suggest Win Butler in leather trousers.
The song that follows, ‘Super Max Lament on the Way’, is beautifully tender, with minor percussion and string synths complimenting Donovan’s breaking vocals to create something akin to finding a trap door into Sic Alps’ weirdly wonderful world. ‘Wake Up, It’s Over’ feels all too short at 1:36, yet it says something about Sic Alps’ quality that they can effectively drop in a track as startlingly bleak and original as this and simply move on, as if it was a mere afterthought.
As such, it’s difficult to give the album a definitive score; Napa Asylum isn’t so much a cohesive album, but a sense that you’ve got your ear up against a garage door, secretly listening in on a band working on what their sound could, or should be. In truth, you’ll get as much, or as little from this album as you’re willing to put in.
This could be perceived as criticism, but the sound of, and the method behind the album truly works; there’s a real sense that Sic Alps are putting themselves on the line and showing you what they’ve got: no after-effects; no fancy studio magic; no narrative – just a band doing what they’re doing, and doing it well. While you may not initially recall many of the Napa Asylum’s songs, the feel of the album stays with you, and drags you back again and again.