In 2005, between the releases of 'Final Straw' and 'Eyes Open', opening for U2 across Europe and performing at Live 8, Snow Patrol was as big as Coldplay. And then the momentum faded. After the release of 'Eyes Open', which shadows 'Final Straw' in terms of sales but lacks the quality, all the break through success vanished. In the wake of extensive touring, the band disappeared to make a fifth album. And like the band's career so far, ultimately 'A Hundred Million Suns' feels like the build-up to a climax which never happens.
Opener 'If There's A Rocket Tie Me To It' is an impressive introduction, once it gets going, even if it does get sucked into a vacuum of empty vocals and big drums. 'Crack The Shutters' starts as simple piano and vocal and is near perfect three minute pop. The chorus lifts with underwhelming majesty. The first single 'Take Back The City' is brilliantly arranged, full of little twists and ideas and a lot more urgency. Vocalist Gary Lightbody delivers a great vocal but this is coupled with many annoying 'woahs'. At least there are no dreaded handclaps. The chorus, in two parts, is first framed with harsh guitars and then softened with more soaring instrumentation swamped with slack production (the only time the superb Jacknife Lee drops the ball). The mainly acoustic dark charms of 'Lifeboats' is also excellent, like a lost Ray LaMontagne album track but with odd electronic strings and fragments of guitars. Lightbody sums up the nature of the album with "Life is too short to scream and shout".
After a brief lull threatened by the Kate Bush styled and limp backing vocals of 'The Golden Floor' and then the indie plod-rock of 'Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands', things pick up again with 'Set Down Your Glass' - all delicate guitar melody, soft vocals and a pleasant lift in the second half. The understated yet beautiful 'The Planets Bend Between Us' is even better, in spite of suspect falsetto vocals, with wonderful bubbly electronics. It is simple yet epic, not unlike the album as a whole. Penultimate song 'Disaster Button', apart from providing the album's only (and slightly unexpected) expletive, is a fast-paced self-destructive rant with not so much a chorus as another build-up. There is a great (yet brief) space-aged guitar solo and again it is a unique moment.
But all this is a prelude for the final act, a sixteen minute Craig Armstrong inspired three part odyssey entitled 'The Lightning Strike'. It starts with one of the best pieces on the album: 'What If The Storm Ends?'. Lightbody earnestly delivers in dramatic style as the story unfolds. It is the only time an orchestral arrangement is used with true effect. From here 'The Sunlight Through The Flags' is more like Moby but soon descends into muddy guitars. 'Daybreak' ends the proceedings, a stirring electronic upsurge of storytelling: "You held on to me like I was your life raft" conjures up images of hope and survival in rising waters. Like British Sea Power, the members of Snow Patrol have been reading far too many National Geographic magazines. A great 'concept album' style track to close.
'A Hundred Million Suns' does not quite get the big stadium-rock finale it so rightfully deserves but there is considerable quality throughout. Each song rises like a torrent of emotion but never quite reaches the peak, not backing away as such just never getting to that point in the first place. Lightbody is excellent, his best vocals so far - strong and taking risks with good results. Musically, the band make up for a lack of interesting moves with skill and precision. And each song is perfectly inoffensive and welcomed, with the only real down point being the overlong clumsy 80s sounding and disjointed 'Engines'. Otherwise the album has an unwavering consistency; something lacking in the last two albums. Yes, Snow Patrol are as self-absorbed and as universe embracing as Coldplay, while trying to strive for a similar style, but at least they are not resorting to image-altering gimmicks and mind-scrambling production. Oh, and 'A Hundred Million Suns' has some great songs which is always a good idea.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)