Wayne Flask

Author Translator Music Writer Public Annoyance

Album Review: Morning Ale (A Tribute to Serp, Manic Magazine 25/11/12)


I could be sitting here telling you the obvious. You’d be staring at yet another torrent of praise written by people who’d be overly eager to write yet another epitaph for the man.

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t hold my tears back either.

*          *          *

I was slouched in my recliner late on a Tuesday night watching a half-baked series about a mutinous nuclear submarine. My torpor is shaken by a single vibration of my phone. A laconic one-liner from Etienne Robinich, Winter Moods’ keyboardist, evoked the saddening gloom that most of us seem to understand all too well: Is-Serp ħalliena.

I had known Steve wasn’t in the best of health for a couple of months. I will rue not having made it to at least the briefest of visits, a phonecall, an SMS, a something. I hadn’t seen him in years, must be – what – five, six, seven years. Like so many once familiar faces I’ve met in my life, our roads took separate turnings.

One of my fondest memories of him is his raucous laughter and cackling in a dark, poorly lit pub in Cologne back in 2004, where the band was letting off steam after a performance in the Ringfest. Glorious weekend that was for Winter Moods; for me, a rare opportunity to see how a band of brothers really works.

Things, people, emotions, fall and drift apart. Winter Moods are nowadays good old friends, because time, ageing, indie music and krautrock have blown a cold air onto fandom. “Blame” it onto the equally naive sophistication of my latter years?

Talk of envelopes, there’s a gem of theirs I’m still chuffed to own. It’s packaged in a blurry red sleeve, nothing overly sophisticated, and goes by the name of Morning Ale. At the time, circa 2000, I was doing my ‘A’ levels and had long hair; the Beangrowers were the only Maltese band to feature on my Pinterest, had such a thing existed at the time; I never considered or even remotely imagined myself to be an indie kid; and spent long chunks of my break sulking while I waited for Ira Losco, who constantly hogged the school phonebooth, to put the bloody receiver down. Boyfriends, gah.

His guitar, his bandana, his stars and stripes. We’ll miss you, Serp.

Morning Ale was a breath of fresh air. It was released to relatively little fanfare at Henry J Beans, unless my memory is playing up again, and one of the few things I remember is the album doing a full three loops on the PA (four for the stragglers).

Here was, probably, one of Malta’s finest shots at mainstream music, the rebranding and reinvention of Winter Moods at the hands of David Vella. Gone were the long, Marillionesque virtuosisms of the now obscure debut album, gone was the apparent darkness of a band who was only famous for penning Sarah. (Mind you, were I to somehow stumble upon my copy of that album, it would probably lead to some epiphany of sorts, pretty much the same way I stopped ignoring The Stone Roses’ Second Coming after endless plays of Driving South).

Here was a band whose second album, the toughest of the career, proved to be their defining moment. At the time, twelve years ago, it opened a world of opportunity for aspiring Maltese artists, mentally if not physically. And something started chugging away, slowly but surely.

Comparisons between then and now are completely pointless: twelve years ago there was no teenage band with sufficient testicles and quality to become a contender in the scene, there wasn’t anyone like The Clandestines are today, and surely nobody like Sempliċiment tat-Triq to capture people’s imagination. And, Beanies and WM excepted, anyone who could seriously inspire the bands to raise their own bar.

And the album itself?

Keep your eyebrows high, and listen… Ivan had it all mapped out straight from opener Lay Down, with its slightly grandiose opening an indication of things to come. It’s a river of soft tunes and carefully harnessed guitar/keyboard combos, nothing you could possible dislike in all this (I did, though, tend to skip Sugarless every so often).

There’s a mix of balladry and well, the occasional dark moment. The masked resignation of Jamaica and the splendid understatement of the title track rub shoulders with the sunny spring morning feel of Ride and the verve of Water, and then, of course, the song that will last generations, Everyday Song, the anthemic tune that has almost certainly wiped Sarah from collective memory.

A light moment, Temple Studios, around 2005.

Winter Moods would go on to release the equally seminal Butterfly House, before Closer (EP), Ordinary Men and the last release to date, Argento.

Why, will you ask, the band will ask, this sudden, unprecedented lesson in Winter Moods history? I love Morning Ale. No seriously, I’m in love with it.

And while it pains me to say so, this tiny review is the best tribute I could allow myself to write about Is-Serp. Though not as polished and PR friendly as the other guys in WM, he was one of few people with whom I instantly felt comfortable. He had a contagious sense of humour. He’d look at you from above his sunglasses, not through them. He probably slept in them, and in that bandana too. He could play guitar, he seriously could blow the roof off a cathedral with his playing.

My best photogram of him will be of him in a windy night in Cologne, clad in a long black shirt, yellow bandana and sunglasses, the usual Serp poise, conjuring the most legendary of guitar solos, as he dallied on the distortion pedal while the reverie of Everyday Song ran out far and blithe into what would have been just another chilly German evening.

*          *          *

Here, now, it’s another sticky Maltese morning. I’m walking up the hill to Senglea, there’s nowhere to park, people are packing the church for the last goodbye. Mothers, or rather, some of them, are trying to calm down hyperactive kids on the parvis, close to where I stand. His people, I thought to myself.

There, again, is the sickly feeling of death passing by as the band, in tears, emerge carrying his coffin. Some sobbing from emotional families and bystanders. There’s nothing I can say, nothing I should say. I can only watch, as the band of brothers prepare to bury one of our finest and last rockstars.

His legacy, fortunately, stands to live on.

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