It’s been a couple of months since The Virginmarys’ Northern Sun Sessions landed in my inbox and immediately elbowed everything else out of the way to become the best album of 2018. Now, though, everyone can hear The Virginmarys’ latest opus, truly embodying their self-styled mantra of “Peace Love Truth Music” more than anything they’ve released before.
But to ensure they go one further for their fans, there’s also the chance to hear its roots in its companion disc, Northern Sun Demos. With many of these being sent to fans in the first half of the year as teasers for what to expect, whenever a new one dropped, it set their fandom alight. So if you bought the extra disc, there’s a few recognisable treats as well as some other pieces to enjoy.
As vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Ally Dickaty explains before the meat of the disc, the drip-feeding in the run up to the album was done to keep in touch with the fans. As such, the first half-dozen numbers which you’ll find on the CD with the first, “Blind Lead the Blind”, as I noted for the main album is pretty damn close to the finished article, just with the lyrics refined. Meanwhile “Wanna Be Free” is far more brooding than its counterpart, every one of Danny Dolan’s drumbeats reverberating like gunshots. At moments, there’s hints of the fully-realised song and elsewhere there’s a real garage rock vibe to the song.
“Get Me Back Home” with the Vox guitar and slide snarls and slithers from start to finish. It’s a bolshy sound from the pair and feeds perfectly into “Step Up”. Again, this is another served well by the lack of production and polish – as raw as you’ll find on this disc. Elsewhere, “Look Out For My Brother” bridges the gap between how they were playing it live and how it’s found on the album. It’s still got that ridiculously massive groove to it and its menacing tone is an excellent juxtaposition for its call-to-arms lyrics. If you’ve heard “SOS4UNI” on the album, you know how frantic Danny’s drums on the song are. Here, they’re curbed but still incredible, almost as if between demo-ing it and recording, he decided “Let’s go for it!”
The last few tracks aren’t quite demos but more in line with acoustic recordings. Where the first half were recorded at Trackside Studios, this sees Ally use his own home setup. Alongside the shift in arrangement, you can tell immediately it’s a new setup. “Northern Sun” for the way it’s been recorded takes on a more complex sound despite being acoustic all the way through. It takes on a haunting tone, there’s a real essence of Leonard Cohen to it here.
“Looking For Love”, whilst not on the album, should be familiar to many who have trekked through the back catalogue and often played during Ally’s acoustic sets. Much like its predecessor, its production, or lack thereof, turns it into the most powerful version you can hear; pain and hurting laced throughout. The last two tracks are perhaps the most interesting as they’ve never been aired. Slightly cleaner in production, they’re still on Ally’s setup and acoustic-focused. “Three Horses Ride” could have featured on the Stripped album, looking at those magnetic people in our lives – the good ones and the bad. Meanwhile, a look at the title for the last track, “1984”, you know it’s going to deal with heavy subject matters. It’s as thought-provoking as many other tracks you’ll find on Northern Sun Sessions and the rest of the back catalogue.
Discs like these are always interesting listens, especially this one. It’s fascinating to see how some of the best tracks of the album were moulded into their full shape. From a production standpoint, don’t expect it to be as pristine as Northern Sun Sessions, they’re demos after all. The shift between the two styles isn’t jarring and given their composition, serves the songs better. If you’re a hardcore fan, chances are you ordered a copy of this to accompany your main album and you’re going to enjoy it for the same reasons I do – you need more.
Header image by Alex Wright of Teneight