Pale Saints drew from a deceptively deep pool of influences and teased out distinctive traits that charmed the visionary 4AD label, and consequently listeners for whom shoegaze was a term of endearment. The English band developed their unique strain of dream pop by synthesizing elements of connected bygone movements such as West Coast psychedelia, the paisley underground, and C-86, applying avant-folk, pure pop, and the spectral post-punk advancements of their elder labelmates along the way. Their three albums of increasing scope and sprawl, namely The Comforts of Madness (1990), In Ribbons (1992), and Slow Buildings (1994), left lasting imprints. The debut, a Top 40 U.K. hit upon release, is particularly well-regarded, and was expanded and recirculated by 4AD on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
Named after a song by Eyeless in Gaza, Pale Saints formed in Leeds, England in 1987. The original lineup consisted of bassist and vocalist Ian Masters, drummer Chris Cooper, and guitarist Graeme Naysmith, the latter two of whom had responded to an ad Masters placed in a record shop. Early recordings appeared on micro-indie compilations across 1988 and early 1989, but it was a third demo recording that attracted 4AD label head Ivo Watts-Russell, who was spurred to catch an April 1989 gig at the Camden Falcon and signed the band (as well as support act Lush). That July, the trio, joined by the Edsel Auctioneer's Ashley Horner on second guitar, recorded a BBC session for John Peel's program. Pale Saints made their 4AD debut two months later with Barging Into the Presence of God. The three-song EP was led by Watts-Russell favorite "Sight of You," a heartsick ballad showcasing Masters' chorister-like voice.
"Sight of You" reappeared on The Comforts of Madness, 4AD's first release the following decade, in February 1990. The album entered the U.K. album chart at number 40. An EP of four new songs, Half-Life, was out that October, by which point the band was a quartet with the addition of guitarist Meriel Barham, an original member of Lush strongly recommended by that band's Miki Berenyi. Barham not only contributed to Pale Saints' songwriting process but also shared lead vocal duties with Masters, heard first on the subsequent Flesh Balloon EP, issued in June 1991. The Barham-fronted "Kinky Love," a cover of an obscure composition recorded most notably by Nancy Sinatra, was actually spun off separately as the A-side of a synchronous 7", and reached number 72 on the U.K. chart, 14 places higher than the preceding year's "Half-Life, Remembered." Cool but never affected or detached, Barham's voice added another dimension to the band.
A U.S. licensing deal with Warner Bros. enabled 4AD to increase Pale Saints' exposure abroad. The first product of the agreement was In Ribbons, a farther-ranging set with some of the band's most powerful, wraithlike, and hypnotic songs. Released in the U.K. in March 1992, it entered the homeland chart at number 61. The U.S. edition trailed behind it the following month. Dissatisfied artistically, Masters departed and began an extensive series of assorted short-term projects as part of Spoonfed Hybrid (alongside ex-A.C. Temple member Chris Trout) and ESP Summer (with Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive). The Heart Throbs' Colleen Browne effectively replaced Masters on bass, while Barham stepped to the fore. Slow Buildings, Pale Saints' final LP, was racked in the U.K. and U.S. in August 1994 and likewise alternated between succinct, driving pop and sprawling balladry. Following tours across Europe and the States, and a cover of Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl" (for the tribute album Step Right Up), Barham left. The band officially split in 1996.
Post-Pale Saints, Barham recorded under the name Kuchen for Karaoke Kalk. Cooper and Naysmith continued to perform and record together and separately in numerous bands. Browne has played with the likes of Warm Jets and White Hotel, while Masters has continued to release music under a variety of guises. In January 2020, 4AD released a remastered and expanded 30th anniversary edition of The Comforts of Madness, including the Peel session and an album's worth of demos.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo